Columns » John Brummett

Time to pay the speaker

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We’ve created a monster in the office of speaker of the state House of Representatives. The front-runner to succeed Benny Petrus, young lawyer Robbie Wills of Conway, now takes it to a new level. Lobbyists are starting to grumble.

Because of term limits and the skills of Petrus and Bill Stovall before him, the speaker’s position has become something between uncommonly stout and autocratic.

The speaker builds a governing coalition when he persuades the legislative novices around him to elect and fall in behind him. Then he personally picks committee chairmen, once a function of seniority. He even decides House members’ parking spaces and which representatives get accommodations in the Capitol Hill building.

It’s been fine so far, because Stovall and Petrus did mostly the right things. Stovall ordered up a do-not-pass on the bill two sessions ago to imperil Central Arkansas’s water supply. Petrus kept everyone in line on spending for school facilities, and, when Gov. Mike Beebe told him he didn’t want to see that gay foster ban on his desk, sent the bill to the committee that would sit on it.

The next speaker will be elected in January. It’s pretty much a two-man race.

Rep. David Dunn of Forrest City was out front early. But he has a tendency to bluntness, and that’s never good in electoral politics. Everyone agrees that Wills has moved ahead of him.

Now Wills presumes to charge lobbyists to come to his birthday party May 29 so he can put their money in his Central Arkansas Leadership Political Action Committee and turn around and funnel it in his name to House members’ re-election campaigns.

It’s a parlay. You use the seeming inevitability of your ascendancy to this uncommonly powerful position to hit up vested-interest lobbyists to pay $250 to your PAC to come to your party or $450 to sponsor the reception. Both prices happen to fall under the $500 threshold for itemizing donations to political action committees. So these gifts would be shielded from public view.

Then you use the proceeds to parcel out contributions in the name of your PAC to your colleagues’ re-election campaigns. That further ingratiates you and enhances the inevitability of the ascendancy that the lobbyists had deemed sufficiently inevitable already to warrant their ante-ing up under duress.

Some irked lobbyists have arranged for me to see copies of their invitations to this birthday bash at Mike’s Place in Conway. The first came in a letter from a fellow who is an officer of the PAC. The second was a letter of personal follow-up from Wills himself.

Wills explains it this way: Friends of his set up this PAC and decided to throw this party. They’re excited about what it could mean to Conway and Faulkner County if he became speaker. He’s stayed mostly arm’s length except to share names of people he thought should be invited, owing to personal or professional associations. He’s not meaning to pressure anyone. He doesn’t enjoy the personal resources of Petrus, who created no PAC, but doled out a few contributions to colleagues’ campaigns through personal funds. Wills says Stovall created such a PAC seeking lobbyists’ contributions, but did so only after getting elected speaker. That, Wills says, seems to imply more pressure than his doing so while a mere candidate.

Anyway, Wills says he agrees that the speaker has become a monster and that he intends, if elected, to downsize it.

“Some people have called it a mini-governor, but I want it to be more of a servant of the membership,” he says. “I want a flatter hierarchy instead of a general with lieutenants.”

In the meantime, Wills might ponder, in the interest of less consolidated power, whether he should have raised this PAC money exclusively from friends and constituents around Conway, rather than with the appearance of a heavy hand toward special interest lobbyists.

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