Friday, December 12, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Don’t ignore people’s will

The old political maxim that money will find its way to where its owners want it to go, like water to the sea, may be proved again with Arkansas’ new ethics law. In the month since voters adopted tough rules to limit money’s influence on government decision-making, lobbyists, their bosses and many legislators have searched for loopholes in the law that might permit business as usual.

They think they have found one—maybe more than one—so the newly elected state legislators coming to the capital to get ready for the new assembly next month have been partaking of free food and booze provided by corporate interests as if the voters had not spoken.

Groups like the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce that strenuously opposed the ethics law are saying that the lengthy constitutional amendment ratified by the voters is so full of contradictions and tricky, unforeseen consequences that we ought to just scrap or ignore the whole thing. Just forget it happened.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette editorial page picked up the refrain and said dumb voters were misled into making an abominable mistake when they ratified it by a good margin.

But let’s not throw in the towel and conclude that there is no way to prevent the legal bribery of public officials through gifts and largesse, so just let it happen. Make no mistake, the ethics provisions in Amendment 94 are a huge advance, needing only strict interpretation and enforcement by the state Ethics Commission. Let’s hope that as soon as the commission assumes that mandate, the foolishness at the Capitol will end.

Let’s get to the particulars. The amendment forbids corporations to give money directly to political candidates and parties or funnel money to them through political action committees, and it forbids lobbyists and their bosses to buy meals, drinks, lodging, travel or entertainment for legislators, judges or officials of the executive branch of government. Not even a cup of coffee, a canapé or a whiskey sour. It made an exception: food and drinks that are available to everyone at “a planned activity” to which everyone in a governmental body is invited.

The intent was clear: something like a bar convention reception where Supreme Court justices might be present and could partake of the finger foods without there being any quid pro quo intended or expected.

So the fancied interpretation of the law is that while you may no longer be able to take out just Senator Tweedledee for cocktails and dinner, it would be fine as long as the tab was open for all legislators, or all the members of a certain committee that would be voting on your bill or the bill you want to be killed. That clearly is not what the drafters of the amendment intended and it is not what the voters intended.

The amendment directs the legislature to give the state Ethics Commission rule-making power to carry out the details of the law and to interpret it. When that happens in January, we trust, the commission will not say that one tiny provision overrides the whole thrust of the law, even if the attorney general—the present one or the one who will succeed him in January—sides with the big money.

Amendment 94 creates another commission to fix the salaries and perks of legislators and elected state officials, including all the state’s trial and appellate judges.

Let us trust that the commission, while fixing adequate salaries for the officials, will end the subterfuges by which legislators supplement their salaries with needless “expenses” and per diem for days they are not at the Capitol at work.

The new breed of business Republicans who have entered the legislature like to set their wives up as limited liability corporations and pay them from the state treasury for helping them in their legislative work.

The head of the state Chamber of Commerce, to show how lousy Amendment 94 is, said lawyers were interpreting its new term-limits provisions as giving every legislator, past and present, a crack at 16 more years in the legislature, not a cumulative 16 years as the amendment flatly says. That is sheer nonsense. The amendment cannot be stretched to yield such a ridiculous interpretation, and any lawyer who says it does should be required to pass the law exam again.

Let’s give the law a chance to work and the commission that will enforce it the confidence that it will follow the spirit of the law and not the interests of those who would purchase public policy.

— Ernie Dumas