In November Arkansans will vote on a proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution, “The Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency, And Financial Reform Amendment Of 2014”. Sounds like a great piece of ethics legislation. Actually, it is a deceptive amendment that uses the subject of ethics to get substantial benefits for legislators. The effort to get legislative benefits by using ethics reform as the bait is the subject of this article. Yes, it is much like the old bait-and-switch technique of sales.
The proposal will be on the ballot as “Issue No. 3 – HJR1009.” It proposes to amend the Arkansas Constitution to strengthen some ethics provisions, but unlike most constitutional amendments, this one lets the legislature change the Constitution without a vote of the people. In other words, there was no need or benefit in adding the ethics rules in the constitution.
But it does much more than change ethics rules. The benefit of the proposed amendment goes to politicians who wanted to: (1) weaken term limits for legislators; and (2) remove limits on the salaries of legislators and elected officials of the Executive Branch. These substantial changes serve as payback for agreeing to pass ethics legislation. This is quite obvious when you consider that ethics rules could have been adopted by a simple bill, but weakening term limits and getting higher salaries must be done by a constitutional amendment.
Some legislators may have voted for the measure because they wanted ethics reform and saw this proposal as the only option. Still, it is clear that the idea to use ethics reform as an excuse to get benefits for legislators has been developing for several years.
DEVELOPMENT OF A PLAN TO BENEFIT LEGISLATORS
The proposal, House Joint Resolution 1009, was sponsored by Representative Warwick Sabin (D) and Senator Jon Woods (R). Before discussing problems with the proposed amendment, let’s look at what led to the plan.
In November 2010, Representative John Burris put out an idea on how to deal with ethics reform. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported, “Earlier in the week, Burris told an Arkansas Times reporter that he may be interested in banning lobbyists from buying anything for lawmakers, ending per diem and doubling lawmakers’ salaries to compensate for not receiving lobbyist gifts.”[i] (Emphasis added)
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quickly fired back at Burris in an editorial titled “Ethics for Sale”. The editorial personally attacked Burris saying, “What’s wrong with this picture? Or rather with Representative Burris’ value system if he really believes ethical behavior can be bought by a pay raise.”
Burris’ idea did not come up in the 2011 Regular Session but ethics remained an issue. Regnat Populus 2012 formed to put an ethics proposal on the 2012 ballot. They proposed to restrict campaign contributions from corporations and unions, limit gifts to elected officials and keep former legislators from becoming lobbyists for two years. Their effort fell well short of the number of signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The group vowed to keep up the fight in the 2013 Regular Session of the General Assembly.[ii]
A less restrictive version of the Regnat Populus ethics proposal was incorporated into House Joint Resolution 1009. HJR1009 also built on John Burris’ idea to get salary concessions for legislators by also including a section to weaken term limits for legislators.
Part 2 examines the proposal’s payback to the legislature.
[i] “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “Ethics on the mind of House’s Burris”, Arkansas, Pages 11 on 11/11/2010
[ii] Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “Ethics tuneup fails to secure spot on ballot”, Arkansas, Pages 9 on 07/07/2012
[iii] HJR1009 or 2013, page 16, lines 33 -36.
[iv][iv] Amend 80 § 16 (E)
[v] “Summary of General Legislation, Bureau of Legislative Research, 2013