Do you know whether your Arkansas legislator is representing you … or the interest of a client or the legislator’s business when the legislator acts on legislation?
Arkansas’ ethics laws have tried to get a handle on legislator conflicts, without much success. In recent years, much of the focus has been on conflicts by attorney-legislators whose legislative work benefits clients. But, it is not just attorneys. Some legislators have “consulting” firms and you do not know who their clients are. Some legislators’ businesses benefit from the legislator’s actions. Yet it is hard for the public to know when a legislator is working for them or working for clients and business interests.
Some conflicts are readily apparent and need no explanation. For example, if a legislator is a plumber, you know when plumbing legislation comes up, he has a personal interest in the legislation. But in most instances, a conflict would be hidden from view.
A legislator must report sources of income on his or her annual “Statement of Financial Interest” but that information may not tell you anything. The report would show income from his business but when he or she votes on legislation benefiting Medicaid providers you probably won’t know the legislator’s business has huge business ties to Medicaid providers.
Conduit for Action has reported on the appearance of attorney-legislator conflicts and will continue to do so.[i] Others have been more active in reporting on conflicts, such as the liberal blog, Arkansas Times Blog.[ii] And the statewide press? ….Not so much.
EXISTING PROCEDURE FOR REPORTING CONFLICTS
There is already a vehicle for legislators to report potential conflicts under Arkansas Law. A.C.A. 21-8-803 is titled “Reporting of potential conflicts.”[iii] It was originally passed by the people as part of Initiated Measure No. 1 of 1988.
When we talk about “legislative action” we are not just talking about the legislator being the sponsor of a bill. Legislative action includes many other things such as: proposing an amendment to a bill, presenting the bill for the sponsor, coming to the floor to speak for or against legislation, and voting on legislation. It even includes the legislature’s review of state agency rules or contracts.
The definition of “legislative action” under the law is broad. A.C.A. 21-8-402 says:
“(8) “Legislative action” means introduction, sponsorship, consideration, debate, amendment, passage, defeat, approval, veto, or any other official action or nonaction on any bill, ordinance, law, resolution, amendment, nomination, appointment, report, or other matter pending or proposed before a committee or house of the General Assembly, a quorum court, or a city council or board of directors of a municipality;
But the use of the Statement of Potential Conflicts by legislators in the past nineteen years has been extremely rare. Why? Instead of using the provision as a way to be open and transparent to voters, legislators have chosen to read it as narrowly as possible (or perhaps, just ignore it).
Since they won’t abide by the spirit of transparency then the legislature should fix the requirements so that it is meaningful
A legislator may tell you: “Golly gee, I favor transparency and would like to take loopholes out of the Statement of Potential Conflict, but I can’t because the bill filing deadline has passed.” But if the legislator wanted to do something about it, he or she could. Why do we say that? The bill and resolution filing deadline is merely a legislative rule and the legislature by a 2/3rds vote can suspend the deadline. They can suspend it for all bills or just for one bill by one legislator to require transparency. Also, each house of the legislature could act today – by passage of a motion to adopt transparency rules for the conduct of its members. (The Arkansas Senate doesn’t even pass its rules by a resolution and instead adopts rules by a simple motion.)
CONFLICTS AND MEDICAID
Here is an interesting thought…. Senator Bryan King is sponsoring SB175 to require Medicaid providers and government officials to disclose of conflicts of interest. Wouldn’t it be interesting what we might learn if legislators filed a Statement of Potential Conflict on their potential conflicts in opposing this bill.
Is your legislator representing you or the interest of a client or the legislator’s business? You aren’t supposed to know….
[ii] For example: Connectivity: Business and governance by citizen legislature , and State to re-bid youth services contracts; senator in thick of negotiating for client
[iii] 21-8-803. Reporting of potential conflicts.
(a) A legislator who is required to take an action in the discharge of his or her official duties that may affect his or her financial interest or cause financial benefit or detriment to him or her, or a business in which he or she is an officer, director, stockholder owning more than ten percent (10%) of the stock of the company, owner, trustee, partner, or employee, which is distinguishable from the effects of the action on the public generally or a broad segment of the public, shall:
(1) Prepare a written statement describing the matter requiring action and stating the potential conflict; and (2) (A) Deliver a copy of the statement to the appropriate official to be filed with the statement of financial interest.
(B) The copy of the statement may be delivered in person by the public official, by mail, or by a person authorized by the public official to deliver the copy.
(b) The obligation to report a potential conflict of interest under this section arises as soon as the legislator is aware of the conflict.
(c) If the statement of financial interest filed by the legislator makes the conflict readily apparent, then no report need be filed.
HISTORY: Init. Meas. 1988, No. 1, § 1; Acts 1989, No. 719, § 4.