Monday, November 10, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Our lobbyists under attack

 Democrats were not the only ones who wore long faces Wednesday morning when the full panoply of results from the general election were known. The saddest—and most shocked—people in Arkansas may have been the army of lobbyists who toil in the legislative and executive branches of government on behalf of their corporate employers.

The biggest surprise of the election was the voters’ ratification of all three constitutional amendments that were referred to them by the legislature last year, but particularly the third one—the lobbying, ethics and term-limits law, which became a part of the Arkansas Constitution at a minute past midnight Wednesday.

“Everyone is just in shock,” one lobbyist grieved the morning after. “This shuts us all down. We’re out of business.”

That was an exaggeration. The corporate interests are not going to give up on shaping the laws passed by the legislature or the rulemaking and administrative decisions of the executive branch, but the new ethics and lobbying law clearly puts a crimp in their style. It forbids any lobbyist or any agent or employer of a lobbyist from ever again offering a legislator or state official a gift — even so much as a hamburger, a whiskey sour or a cup of coffee — and the public official commits a crime if he accepts such a gift. It also makes it illegal for a corporation to send a check or cash to a politician’s campaign; no one will be able to do that but an individual, a political action committee or a legislative caucus, and they must abide by the dollar limits in the law—$2,000 for an individual, $5,000 for a PAC.

Such a code has long been needed, but one legislature after another has refused to enact a law imposing such ethical restraints upon legislators, their colleagues in the executive branch and their benefactors in the fifth estate, as lobbyists have sometimes been called.

It was sort of remarkable that the legislature in 2013 voted to put the amendment on the ballot for the voters, but far more astonishing that the voters approved it. The amendment was supposed to be thrashed. The sponsors and advocates of term limits strenuously opposed it, as did lobbyists, their employers and many of the very legislators who voted to put it on the ballot.

Let’s take a moment to explain the politics. State Rep. Warwick Sabin, a freshman Democrat from Little Rock, largely wrote the ethics portion of the ballot proposal and advocated it passionately. The amendment is long, tedious and painstaking in an effort to close every possible loophole that legislators and lobbyists might devise. Sabin said the legislature needed to pass such a law itself or refer it to the people to purify the reputation of legislators, who were viewed as selling out to corporate benefactors on important roll calls. Ending the free meals, athletic tickets, alcohol, entertainment, excursions and often fairly expensive gifts would do that, he said.

Arkansas had a new Republican legislature, and legislators already were chafing under the term-limits law, which restricts a person to only six years in the House of Representatives and eight years in the Senate. Many faced their last terms in January. If Sabin and the other ethics champions would consent to broadening the ethics law to allow term limits to be liberalized to 16 years in either house, they would go along and put it on the ballot. They would gain something (a much longer life in the legislature) and give up something (all the perks handed out so generously by the lobbyists). Being no big fan of term limits himself, Sabin said OK, and the legislature voted overwhelmingly to offer the broadened amendment as one of its three referrals.

But then this year, perhaps hearing from lobbyists and the angry term-limits advocates, they (but not Sabin) changed their minds. The Republican state convention adopted a platform vigorously calling for defeat of the amendment. All but seven Republican legislators had voted to put it on the ballot, but the whole party called for the amendment’s defeat.

But the platform and the amendment reversal got no publicity and voters who went to the polls to endorse Republican candidates up and down the ballot and to ratify what they perceived to be Republican amendments never got the message. They ratified all three by good margins. So certain was the defeat that even the disheartened ethics supporters thought it hopeless and made no effort to get it adopted.

One other provision of the law that escaped notice was Sabin’s provision for an independent salary commission that will take legislators’ power to set their own salaries, per diem and expenses and those of all elected state officials and all judges. The independent commission, as soon as Gov. Beebe and the presiding officers of both houses and the chief justice can make their appointments, will determine salaries and expenses of all these officials starting Jan. 1 and the legislature will not even have the power to appropriate the money for the salaries. They will be paid straight out of the treasury and the legislature will have no say.

The ethics amendment was the one legislatively referred measure that The Leader supported, but you may recall that we also despaired that it could not be ratified. We are glad today that our despair was not rewarded, but we have no illusion that all will now be well. Just as water will find its way to the sea, influence money will find a way to its desired beneficiary, no matter how tough the law to prevent it.

Also, the amendment provides that the legislature can repeal or change most of the provisions of the amendment by a vote of two-thirds of each legislative house. Vigilance will still be required.

A final note on those three amendments. The other two proposed by the Republican-led legislature were atrocious, but they passed handily. One gives legislative committees veto power over all rules and regulations of government, which effectively means the power to block laws that the legislature has passed and the governor signed into law.

The other makes it far harder for people to circulate petitions to get citizen-written laws on the ballot. Starting next year, only those with lots of money to contract for signature gathering—the casinos, racetracks and the like—will own the citizen initiative and referendum process.

They are terrible laws, but that is democracy, too.