Wednesday, February 07, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Ready for reform?

Stop the presses! One house of the Arkansas legislature passed a bill this week to raise the standard of ethical conduct by lawmakers. The Senate approved a bill by Sen. Robert Thompson to bar legislators from becoming paid lobbyists for one year after they leave office. Shutting that revolving door, if even for only one year at a time, can restore a small measure of confidence in the integrity and independence of the lawmaking process. The halls at every legislative meeting are filled with ex-legislators who are representing interests that they served so dutifully when they were in office doing the people’s work. They are back using the connections, friendships and alliances built when they were lawmakers, but now in the direct service of special interests.

It does not stir confidence, and Sen. Thompson and his colleagues in the Senate recognized it. But in the House of Representatives, Speaker Benny Petrus quickly steered the bill into the Rules Committee, where good reform bills go to die. We can only hope that the committee gives the full membership a chance to vote for better government. Too bad that it is apt to be their only chance. Elsewhere, from New York to California, new governors and legislatures are embracing new regulations and restrictions on gifts to legislative and executive officials. So is Congress, to an uncertain degree. The wide network of corruption spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Republican Leader Tom DeLay was a big factor in the Democratic election sweep of 2006, and state capitols as well as Washington are trying to show that they listened and are going to stem the effect of money and favors on lawmaking and executive decisions.

Our former governor and now presidential contender was a poster child for public avarice. He took every gift he could get his hands on from any source, piling up more than $100,000 in gifts in a single year of his 10-year reign. The law was supposed to prohibit that, but it vaguely says that an officeholder may not accept gifts that are intended to reward him for performing his public duties, for which the taxpayers pay him adequately. But Gov. Huckabee could say that the gifts were the fruits of friendship and not payola, so there was no appearance of cronyism or favoritism.

Gov. Beebe says he finds it “appalling” that anyone, a governor or a legislator, would take a gift valued at more than $100 on the premise that the state Ethics Commission can’t prove that it was a payoff for something he did or would do. His take, Beebe said, is that neither he nor a member of the legislature should accept a gift valued at more than $100 from anyone but a family member or a friend of more than 25 years acquaintance. In his case, that would mean no gifts from anyone he didn’t know well in 1982, the year that he was elected to his first public office.

Then he should propose legislation that would do exactly that. Better still would be legislation that simply outlawed gifts altogether to public officials except from family and close friends. Not even a cup of coffee. Any denomination, whether it is $100 or $1, becomes subject to interpretation. The law would make it easy to just say no, which politicians argue that it is ungracious to do. When Dale Bumpers was governor, he returned every gift with a polite form letter. On leaving the governor’s office in 1975, Bumpers put on his coat and left everything else behind. Mike Huckabee left the bare walls. Everything else he claimed as his own.

No legislator is likely to offer such pristine reform as a stern no-gifts policy because some colleagues would feel their integrity was sullied, unless the governor showed the way. Beebe seems disinclined. When this session is over, some public-spirited group should sponsor initiated legislation to do that. Lawmakers need a little help in doing what most of them know is right.
—Ernie Dumas