Columns » Max Brantley

What now?

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Arkansas’s political landscape changed significantly this week. Or did it?

Gov. Mike Beebe took the oath of office Tuesday, ending more than 10 years of Republican leadership. Democrats hold every statewide office. Their big majority increased in the legislature. So the question: Will Democrats wield that absolute power in a way to build trust with voters? It could be so easy.

Here’s a start. Sen. Robert Thompson of Paragould has introduced a bill to ban legislators from becoming lobbyists for a year after leaving the legislature. Two years would be better, but one year is better than nothing. Beebe, in an interview with John Brummett, indicated support for the idea. It would be good, too, to find a way to prohibit legislators from doing business with the state while serving, including working for agencies that depend on the legislature for their livelihood.

The public well knows that too many legislators believe being a lawmaker means never having to pick up a check. Arkansas should adopt the Wal-Mart rule that prohibits its employees from accepting even a cup of coffee from vendors. A legislator should try at least as hard as an underwear buyer for Wal-Mart to be beyond reproach.

Legislators like their freebies too much to end them, however. An initiated act may yet do the job, or at least require specific reporting of names, dates and amounts when lobbyists entertain. The loopholes in reporting now make the practice all but invisible.

Beebe indicated to Brummett, too, that he wants to do something about a developing loophole in the law covering gifts. There’s an emerging sentiment in the legislature that you can accept a gift worth more than $100 so long as it isn’t a straight-up provable bribe — specific payment for specific act. Beebe is appalled by the notion, as all should be. He favors barring gifts worth more than $100 to public officials except from people with whom they had friendships prior to public service. Good idea. However, the limit should be lower — it’s $50 in Washington — and it should not exempt the reporting of any gift below that amount.

Arkansas is a laggard in campaign finance laws, too. We should end corporate contributions, in part as a favor to stockholders powerless to oppose political favors with their money. The bigger problem is the sham of a $2,000 individual contribution limit when people with multiple corporate shells can contribute money in the name of each corporation. Mike Beebe and Dustin McDaniel were among many bipartisan beneficiaries of this practice. McDaniel, for example, got multiple contributions from developer Bruce Burrow, who’s hoping to realize millions from state tax subsidies provided by a law McDaniel passed. And lawmakers wonder why voters are so cynical.

There’s so much more. Beebe could establish a rational policy on open records in the governor’s office — not a blanket exemption for every scrap of paper that passes through. He could insure complete transparency on State Police plane use and promise to fly commercial out of state except in unusual circumstances. He and his wife could eschew State Police chauffeurs. He could restore transparency to Governor’s Mansion spending so that taxpayers would know we’re not paying for his family’s groceries and other personal expenses.

If they surprise voters with a little self-sacrifice, public officials might reap a dividend of goodwill for more difficult endeavors.

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