I try to get excited about the 2014 constitutional amendment proposal forged by the Regnat Populist ethics reform group and the legislature. It's hard.
The proposal won legislative approval because 1) it creates a mechanism for legislative pay raises protected from political blowback; 2) it allows legislators to serve longer, and 3) it gives constitutional protection to free meals for legislative groups and for junkets. The positives?
Individual gifts by lobbyists will be prohibited, if not group wining and dining. Legislators must wait two years, rather than a year, to be a lobbyist. But there's nothing to prevent them from being special interest-paid governmental relations experts as long as they don't directly work on legislation.
Finally, the amendment does prohibit direct corporate contributions to political campaigns. A reduction in corporate contributions — if the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately doesn't nullify such laws — isn't a bad thing. But contributions to PACs and by PACs are untouched and that's a pretty big exception.
The Democrat-Gazette, for example, pored over contribution records recently and found 13 lawmakers had taken contributions during the supposed contribution blackout period 30 days before a legislative session. There were varying excuses.
Forget the blackout rule and look at simple political decency. These are politicians who were at least 18 months away from an election when contributions were made. None had a demonstrable need for the money. And there it came. It was mostly corporate money, but a big chunk of it came from PACs, which won't be a bit restricted by the amendment.
Consider Republican Sen. Ron Caldwell of Wynne. He raked in more than $30,000 on Dec. 20, including some $10,000 from the PACs of Southwestern Energy, the Arkansas Health Care Association, the Go Eddie Joe PAC (a vehicle by which Sen. Eddie Joe Williams rounds up corporate money to pass out to needy colleagues), the Arkansas Dental PAC, the Hospital Association and the Community Health Centers PAC. All this special interest money and Caldwell doesn't have to run for re-election until 2016. If the "ethics" amendment passes, looks like he can still count on plenty of corporate money, laundered through PACs, presuming they like his voting record. I'm betting they will.
Generally speaking, you don't find a lot of corporate money in a vast number of legislative races, though a little can go a long way. But, you might argue, the removal of corporate money could be very important in statewide races for governor and other powerful positions, such as attorney general and treasurer.
True. But this new restriction, some believe, will only encourage a worse form of corporate influence peddling — independent expenditures. Increasingly, the independent money is coming through 501c4 organizations that enjoy special tax status, but can spend unlimited amounts on "education" and even some direct advocacy without ever disclosing where the money is coming from. By shutting off the flow of transparent direct corporate contributions, some critics say, the state will only encourage a redirection of unaccounted money to "dark money" expenditures.
I expect huge sums of independent money to be spent in 2014 to elect corporate-friendly Supreme Court justices. Look for it also to be spent to defeat Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson. He derailed the business lobby's tort reform amendment in support of his financial benefactor John Goodson, a wildly successful Texarkana trial lawyer. Rep. Ann Clemmer will be a collateral beneficiary in running against Hutchinson. She'll get corporate money, too, by PACs or otherwise.
Money, like water, always finds an outlet. That's the chief reason it's hard for me to become too enthusiastic about the so-called ethics amendment.