Leader Blues

Friday, January 06, 2006

EDITORIAL >> Arkansans need Bond

The state House of Representatives will assemble Monday in person or by proxy to settle on a speaker for the 2007-08 biennium, an issue that until the turn of the century would have engaged almost no one outside that chamber. We might have cheered on the local boy for the puerile reason that, well, he’s our boy. It was worth about as much as having a local youngster chosen for Boys’ Nation.

Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives was a title that carried some prestige but little power. The job was rotated every two years among the longest-serving and most agreeable legislators. The speaker exercised virtually no leverage over public policy or the passage of legislation except on the rare occasions where he could use the chair to aid one side or the other in a heated parliamentary struggle. Committee chairmanships and virtually every vestige of influence in the House were functions largely of seniority. Serious lawmakers often did not want the job because it was confining.

Term limits, which began to toll in both houses of the General Assembly about the turn of the century, ended seniority and its spoils, which is about the only good thing to come out of that ill-considered change. Now the speaker of the House is by far the most important job in the legislature, and who occupies that chair is of moment to all of us. That became conspicuously evident last spring when Speaker Bill Stovall, D-Quitman, blocked the passage of legislation that would have left central Arkansas’ pristine public water supply at the mercy of private developers. The speaker now designates committee jobs, steers bills into the right committee and exercises influence similar to that of the majority leader in the federal model.

So community pride is beside the point in the election Monday between Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville and Rep. Benny Petrus of Stuttgart, both Democrats. Were he elected under the old system we would be compelled to give Will Bond a figurative pat on the back. But this is indeed serious business and the whole state’s interests are at stake in his election. Voters in neither this community nor the state, alas, have any say in the choice. The election will reflect the intramural politics of the House of Representatives. But the votes of other House members from these latitudes will be crucial in what by all accounts is a close race.

Benny Petrus is the exemplar of a familiar kind of logrolling legislator who gathers power by coziness with corporate interests and deploys it to their benefit. During legislative sessions Petrus has maintained a hospitality suite financed by lobbyists, where lawmakers may come for free food and spirits and schmoozing with those seeking government favor. Although he had no opponent in his last campaign in 2004, Petrus soaked up $70,000 in election gifts. He guided part of the largesse into the campaigns of other legislators, even Republicans.

It is exactly that free-spending culture of lobbying and legislative backrubbing that has scandalized Washington and brought down Speaker Tom DeLay of Texas, who used his own huge lobbyist-stuffed purse and his K Street connections with Jack Abramoff and others to corrupt Republican congressmen and win special government favors for private interests.

But clearly that culture and the obligations that it has produced have made Benny Petrus a contender for the speakership of the Arkansas House. Even legislators who tend toward the progressive, professional and bipartisan lawmaking of Will Bond feel obligations to a benefactor.

Reporting on the speaker’s race last week, Warwick Sabin, an editor at the Arkansas Times, said the vote Monday “will determine whether the legislature is run like a responsible governing institution or an unprogressive instrument of corporate interest.”

Let us hope that the prick of conscience allows enough of our good public servants to revoke their Faustian bargains and elect Will Bond.