Wednesday, February 13, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Best, worst in legislature

Arkansas legislators who oppose the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program for the working poor would rather put an added burden on small businesses and hospitals that can least afford another tax hike.

Yet these same legislators continue to waste millions of dollars of taxpayers money with questionable expenses. In addition to the personal perks, such as charging the state rent for their offices in their homes and businesses, dozens of lawmakers have given themselves gold-plated health-insurance programs that they would deny their fellow Arkansans.

Fifty-two of 100 members of the Arkansas House of Representatives and 21 of 35 state senators think they are entitled to a benefit normally reserved for full-time state employees. They are abusing the system by electing to be on the state health-insurance program.

As for their personal expense account, it was reported Sunday in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that these part-time legislators have been racking up millions in per diem, mileage and expenses: $3.87 million last year and $5.06 million in 2011. The worst offender was former Sen. Randy Laverty (D-Jasper), who charged us, as taxpayers, $52,894 for travel out of state and to state meetings, expenses and per diem.

It must be pretty nice to get that on top of their annual salaries for basically a three-month job. Laverty, it goes without saying, now has a cushy state job.

Lawmakers earn $15,866 except the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore, who get $17,771.

Even our senators have been racking up the dole. The local rank-and-file public servants don’t earn anything near the $40,747 that Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) sought in 2012 reimbursements, including $2,021.37 for a June energy conference in St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada. That must have been a nice little vacation from the heat of Arkansas. What did they really learn there?

Perhaps our legislators can explain their reimbursements.

What did Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) submit for his $37,274?

At least the local members of the House of Representatives are on the bottom end of the reimbursement list. House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) had submitted only $7,050 for reimbursement by the time the list was complied. Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) had $8,979 and Rep. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) $10,147.

Rep. John Edwards (D-North Little Rock) and former Sen. Ruth Whitaker (R-Cedarville) did even better: They claimed zero expenses last year. They belong on our honor roll of true public servants.

Upon hearing of expense account abuse and other monkey business, we thought state voters really ought to impose tougher term limit controls, reducing the number of years legislators could serve. Instead of letting them serve three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate, why not limit legislators to two terms in the House and one in the Senate? Four years and they’re out.

Additionally, legislators should not be appointed agency directors and on boards as soon as they leave office. Make them ineligible for at least as many years that they have served in the Legislature. The same thing would apply for jobs as lobbyists. The Legislature shouldn’t serve as a revolving door to corporate jobs or to political patronage.

Former Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway is the latest political insider to move from the Capitol to a cushy job as lobbyist for the University of Central Arkansas in his home town. The former music teacher will make $132,000 a year to ask his erstwhile colleagues for more money for UCA, a public institution that has a record of hiring well-connected politicians — remember Lu Hardin and Allen Meadors? — who will always spend lavishly on themselves and their inner circle until the law makes them stop.

Sadly, we can have the toughest term limits, but many of these folks just keep going through the revolving door and getting on the public payroll as if these weren’t hard times enough. A recession? They never heard of it.