Columns » Max Brantley

The free lunch legislature

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Is it any wonder the Arkansas legislature thinks you can get something for nothing?

I've written before about the sham of Amendment 94, the so-called ethics amendment that hornswoggled voters approved in November.

Thanks to its misleading good-government branding, voters approved it. It was good for somebody, just not the public.

Thanks to Amendment 94, Arkansas legislators get to serve an unbroken 16 to 18 years in a single chamber of the legislature. They are soon to get a 150 percent pay raise. They get higher reimbursement for auto mileage than full-time state employees. They draw per diem expense reimbursements for days they don't go to work and thus don't have expenses.

Finally, though Amendment 94 seemingly banned wining and dining of legislators, the free swill continues daily (and doesn't offset their per diem).

Major lobbies feed lawmakers three meals a day many days. A couple of major lobbyists — the nursing home industry and a law firm with blue-ribbon corporate clients — have standing cocktail hours at an apartment building across the street from the Capitol.

The legislature itself has declared these cozy cocktail parties and evening committee dinners at the fanciest restaurants in town as "scheduled activities" and thus exempt from the no-freebie rule, just as amendment architect Republican Sen. Jon Woods no doubt intended.

The state Ethics Commission hasn't and apparently won't exercise its supposed new powers to enforce ethics laws because it depends on the legislature for its own salaries and is hopeful of a tiny and long overdue budget increase.

Elsewhere, tight budgets aren't such a concern.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson thinks the state can afford a tax cut for all — except the 40 percent of taxpayers making less than $21,000 a year. The poorest workers are in the lap of luxury thanks to welfare, Hutchinson believes. They don't face the "extraordinary" burdens affecting those making $75,000.

Hutchinson also thinks the state can open some new prison beds, though it will mean taking one-time money from a reserve piling up at the Insurance Department from excess premium taxes.

But Hutchinson is a highly responsible money manager compared with the highway contractors lobby. They may have the House votes to take an increasing amount annually from schools, colleges and public safety to instead build highways. This ignores an extraordinary rise in highway spending in recent years, the failure to raise the inflation-depleted fuel tax in 16 years and the fact that most other states recognize users — such as damaging trucks — don't pay their fair share.

Hutchinson at least slowed this bill's progress, pleading that his budget was tight. It is indeed. Many state agencies face small budget cuts, despite the inexorable rise of fixed costs. State colleges — their students already strapped by tuition increases that outstrip inflation and the declining value of lottery scholarships — are lucky to be hoping for flat budgeting this year. Public schools — with a still-disastrous employee insurance bill — are looking at only a tiny increase.

One rare legislator with a conscience — faced with the likely unconstitutionality of an underfunded public defenders system — said that he wished the state could forego the $5 million necessary annually to raise legislative and other pay in line with the dictates of the citizens commission empowered by Amendment 94.

Vain wish. The Constitution won't allow it. The raises must be funded off the top, just as Sen. Woods and others intended in writing the amendment attractively enough to get it approved by legislators for the ballot.

There's no free lunch for poor taxpayers, much less a pay raise to help them pay for it themselves. Legislators? That's another matter.

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