Friday, September 30, 2011

EDITORIAL >>Padding expenses

You may think we sue too much in this country, but here is a lawsuit you can get behind. A public-interest foundation called the Arkansas Public Law Center filed a suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court to stop Arkansas legislators from drawing illegal reimbursement for fake office expenses and travel.

It is not so much that lawmakers — all but a few of the 135 — are enriching themselves at the public trough, but that they, and the state, are flagrantly violating the Constitution. We are always worse when the Constitution is ignored, particularly by those who are sworn to uphold it.

Amendment 70, which was ratified by the voters in 1992, fixes the salary of the part-time legislators but allows them to raise it every year to reflect the cost of living. It prohibits any other form of compensation for their work but allows them to recover their expenses as long as they are documented and actually related to their legislative work.

But legislators complained that the pay ($15,869 this year) did not compensate them for the lost time away from their jobs and businesses when they attended legislative sessions and committee meetings at Little Rock and the expense reimbursement rules were too confining. So the House and Senate developed elaborate systems to pay themselves much more by claiming daily expenses the year round. They claim their businesses or their homes as legislative offices and set up “consulting” businesses in their homes. The state then pays them rent, mileage and expenses and for advising themselves on how to do their legislative business. None of it is documented. They sign a simple form every month saying they incurred the fixed expenses that month — the same amount every month.

The suit said that state Sen. Jerry Taylor of Pine Bluff, one of the defendants, had collected $129,633 for undocumented expenses since he went to the legislature in 2007.

The Public Law Center said it was not averse to the legislators collecting better salaries but that it should be aboveboard, transparent and with the public’s approval. Legislators will feel better about themselves when the courts end the practice and they can say they are observing their oaths again. We know the public will be happier.