Tuesday, May 31, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Paying off lawmakers

Michael Wickline’s biennial summary of lobbyist spending on our state’s lawmakers, which appears in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the spring of odd-numbered years, is something we look forward to, although in the end it depresses more than it uplifts.

Wickline devours the lobbyists’ post-session reports on what they spent feeding, entertaining and generally cozying up to members of the General Assembly, and invariably he jogs the memories of a few, who admit that they neglected to report some of the spending. They will get right out to the Capitol and correct the reports.

All this spending is perfectly legal, you know, and just reporting it or as much as they care to report is supposed to make it all right. There is something to be said for transparency, although it should not be too much.

The session this year, which lasted 95 calendar days, cost the lobbyists and their employers $860,000, which Wickline said was considerably less than the $1.3 million reported after the 2009 session. No one had a good explanation for the decline, although Wickline guessed that one reason might be the lack of any legislation this time to raise anyone’s taxes. Two years ago, Gov. Beebe pushed the legislature to raise taxes on tobacco products to pay for a big health initiative. Lobbyists for the two big tobacco companies shelled out more than $300,000 to feed and libate legislators before the big votes. No one was trying to raise business taxes this time, only cut them, and Beebe said he was not going to sign anything cutting badly needed revenues except the half-penny reduction in the tax on groceries. That cut down on big-time influence peddling.

There were fewer substantive issues at the 2011 session than any legislature in modern times. The controversies dealt mainly with social and religious issues, like restricting the rights of gays, women and immigrants, which do not attract much spending from commercial and trade interests.

The only serious commercial issues were efforts to regulate natural gas drilling in the Fayetteville shale. Many legislators organized into a “shale caucus” to see that nothing affecting the exploration companies even emerged from a committee of either house. Still, Stephens Production, Arkansas Oklahoma Gas, Southwestern Energy and other gas interests invested heavily in schmoozing legislators. It would be hard to pin down the amount because they employed a number of lobbyists and most of their lobbyists were contractors who represented other interests as well. Of the contract lobbyists, the two big spenders were Ted Mullenix of Hot Springs, a former Republican state representative, and Bruce Hawkins, a former Democratic representative from Conway County. They spent about $100,000 between them wining and dining legislators.

Former lawmakers are in heavy attendance at lobbyist gatherings. The legislature this time adopted a skimpy reform. It bars legislators who leave the legislature several years from now from hiring themselves out as lobbyists for a couple of years. The idea is that they wouldn’t be seeking financial rewards later for their votes now. But the lawmakers did not want to apply that do-right rule to themselves, so they applied it to the next generation of legislators.

We said Wickline’s report in the end always depresses. That is because it reminds us that none of this should be happening and doesn’t happen where the public has demanded a higher standard of integrity. Legislators should owe the people who elected them their honest judgment on issues, unbidden by money or favors from the interests that have the money and power to shape public policy.

Arkansas is not alone. Washington is still the saddest laboratory, even though one house or the other has adopted a variety of restrictions on spending that would raise questions about vote buying.

We like the Walmart rule. Its representatives are not allowed to accept even a free cup of coffee from vendors. That is the best way to assure that Walmart is getting the most economical deal, for the company and its customers. Would it raise your confidence in the legislature if it did as much? The legislature will never do that, but someone should help them get ethical by putting an initiated act on the ballot to do it.