Columns » Max Brantley

The fun begins



Legislators have begun “pre-filing” bills for the 2007 legislative session.

It’s the usual mix of trivia, attention-grabbing and even the occasional important piece of legislation.

The really tricky stuff generally gets slipped in later in the session, when most people have too many distractions to pay close attention.

So far, we have measures to reduce the sales tax on groceries, a bill to make drivers stick around accident scenes for 30 minutes, a way for members of state boards and commissions to claim more per diem and a bill to declare the Diana fritillary the official state butterfly. The NRA flavor of the day has been introduced. It would end any duty to retreat before opening fire on the criminal miscreant of your choice. This shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later legislation is needed only because the NRA requires a legislative loyalty oath of some sort every session. It matters not that the gun nuts can’t name a case of Arkansas prosecutorial abuse that justifies return-to-the-Wild-West legislation. To the contrary, we can still remember when a local prosecutor even exonerated a hothead who chased an unthreatening petty thief for blocks before gunning him down.

Nothing has been filed so far on the ethics and accountability fronts, sorry to say. For instance:

We need to outlaw the lobby’s wining and dining of public officials. Fact is, you can buy votes with steaks and Scotch in Arkansas.

With a new governor taking office — and no finger-pointing to be feared — it’s also high time to bring greater accountability to the governor’s office. For one thing, it is no longer possible to tell from available public records how a fat expense allowance is used at the Governor’s Mansion. There’s circumstantial evidence it’s being used for personal expenses, but it’s impossible to tell and nobody seems interested in finding out. Transparency is needed.

The governor has even claimed a bogus “gubernatorial working papers” exception to financial records kept at the Governor’s Mansion by people who are not employees of his office. This is but one reason why Arkansas, at long last, needs some better definition of “working papers” under the Freedom of Information Act. The governor needs some privacy in his deliberative process, yes. But not absolute secrecy for documents generated by public employees and others that influence public decisions, such as clemency.

Accountability is fashionable this year. In an article in Roll Call this week, Lou Jacobson wrote of ethics advancements in Montana, Colorado, South Dakota, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Among other measures he listed were laws to prohibit a lawmaker from moving to the lobby ranks for two years. Here in Arkansas, we have sitting legislators who are de facto lobbyists. Colorado put a $50 annual limit on gifts to public officials and, yes, that includes wining and dining and big contributions to inaugural festivities. South Dakota put a strict limit on personal use of the state airplane, a law that would have cramped Gov. Mike Huckabee’s style (and that of his wife). Some states banned political contributions by lobbyists.

Much of the new legislation came as voter-driven initiatives. Legislators — here and everywhere — are reluctant to turn off their own spigots. That reluctance speaks louder than anything for the need.

In his honeymoon period, Mike Beebe could strike a couple of blows for good government by jumping in front of this current parade.

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