Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TOP STORY >> Arkansas ain’t ready for reform

Leader editor-in-chief

“Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”

–Alderman Paddy Bauler (1890-1976)

Paddy Bauler, who represented Chicago’s 43rd Ward for 35 years, must be the patron saint of Arkansas legislators.

The immortal words of this corrupt politician — are there any other kinds of politicians in Chicago? — should be enshrined in the Capitol rotunda as state lawmakers find ingenious ways to circumvent the recently passed ethics initiative that bans gifts from lobbyists.

Amendment 3, which voters passed overwhelmingly last November, was supposed to end the practice of lobbyists wining and dining lawmakers to buy their votes.

There’s a Catch-22 in the ethics amendment, which also extended term limits for legislators to 16 years. Lobbyists can still feed lawmakers at so-called scheduled events, such as a buffet line at War Memorial Stadium, the restaurant/bar at the Capitol Hotel or a box lunch at the state Capitol as long as all legislators get invited.

Now every day is a special event for legislators. They think it’s an entitlement. Happy days are here again.

Lobbyists can treat legislators to steak and bourbon by declaring a special moment at every meeting. It’s always happy hour in and around the Capitol, especially after the sun goes down.

The voters were fooled into approving the amendments.One makes it more difficult to get petition drives on the ballot.

Most people had no idea what they were voting for. Sure, they voted for ethics reform, but that was to trick them into extending term limits and still allow lobbyists to wine and dine legislators at “special events.”

So now almost everything is “a special event,” with only minimal restrictions. But voters have doubled term limits to 16 years. Some lawmakers who served a couple of terms in the House and moved into the Senate could stay on for 20 years or more.

What’s more, they’ll double their salaries thanks to the pay commission that was hidden in the ethics amendment. With the passage of another initiative, legislators will now also control just about every state agency and department. That will lead to more favoritism, such as the hiring of campaign supporters and relatives and friends.

A loose interpretation of the ethics law lets Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin work for a Washington lobbying firm. It’s like the good old days, when legislators worked as lobbyists for the Arkansas Poultry Federation and other special interests.

We asked Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock), who said he’ll let us know the next time Oaklawn throws a bash at War Memorial Stadium with free corned beef for everyone who shows up.

But, no, House says, he has never sat down for a free meal with a lobbyist. House, a retired Army colonel and a veteran of the Iraq war, says he follows the military rule on freebies.

“You could ask any lobbyist, I pay for my own way,” House says.

“Unless they’re open to everyone, my practice has been I pay my own way,” he told us. Some lobbyists provide credit cards at restaurants and let legislators charge on the credit card.”

The new law prohibits that form of bribery. It also bans junkets paid for by special interests, although some legislators are ready to test the limits of that ban.

Rep. Warwick Sabin, a Democrat and sponsor of the ethics law, is hoping the state’s ethics commission will make a ruling soon on what’s allowed and what isn’t.

“We need further clarification of what’s acceptable,” Sabin told us. He said the intent of the initiative was that “no legislator should accept anything of value.”

He’s all for inviting the entire legislature to discuss policy with any organization that wants to make a pitch and put out an urn of coffee for everybody. Even that would be a violation of the so-called Walmart rule, which prohibits associates from accepting even a cup of coffee from a vendor.

Sabin said he had the Walmart rule in mind when he introduced legislation to get ethics on the ballot.

“We thought the Walmart rule is the best practice for employees and legislators,” Sabin said.

He says entertaining legislators at so-called special events is “not meeting the spirit of the amendment.”

The idea was to “exclude food and drinks for entertainment,” Sabin said.

When it comes to lobbyists, he insists, “We should exclude events that serve no other purpose than to ingratiate yourself with legislators.”

You can just hear lobbyists and lawmakers echoing Paddy Bauler: “We ain’t ready for reform.”

Bauler was a saloonkeeper in the 43rd Ward on Chicago’s north side where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place. Ethics wasn’t a top priority for politicians: It could get you killed.

Even journalists received huge Christmas baskets from Chicago pols when I first started out in journalism there. Then we thought better of it and refused the gifts.

But Arkansas politicians like the freebies. Many of them are making their first visit to the big city, and it’s a big deal to get invited to the Capitol Hotel, where they offer five-star dining, all free if you’re a legislator.

Many lawmakers have no other profession except hanging out at the legislature with lobbyists.

If Arkansas ain’t ready for reform, we need a list of legislators who attend these so-called special events sponsored by lobbyists.

We’re more like Chicago, or, closer to home, more like Louisiana but without professional sports teams.