Leader Blues

Monday, March 30, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Not ready for reform

We are endlessly surprised to learn that shabby official behavior is either condoned by law in Arkansas or else punished so lightly that the law is meaningless. We should not be surprised when the legislature is reluctant to close the loopholes.

The latest reminder of the folly was the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commissionís vote this winter to allow the investors in a coal-burning power plant near Hope to proceed full speed to build it, although they do not have the required permits to do it. One permit will have to come from the commission, which will rule this spring or summer whether the tons of poisonous pollutants from the plant would be too harmful to the environment. Only twice in two decades has the commission allowed work to proceed before an environmental permit was issued and the legal barriers removed.

The chairman of the commission, who pushed the work approval through, had private business dealings with contractors for the big plant. His job at the commission was to carry out the public interest without favor, and his vote and his visible role in getting the work moving present at least a compelling appearance of conflict of interest. It is not the only instance. Representatives of the interests that have business before the agencies usually dominate state boards and commissions, and conflicts are unavoidable. The law already says that a person with such a conflict must not vote on issues in which he or she has a personal pecuniary interest, but the punishment typically is an admonition to sin no more.

A liberal Democrat, Kathy Webb of Little Rock, and two conservative Republicans, Jonathan Dismang of Beebe and Dan Greenberg of Little Rock, introduced a bill to fix the law. It would be unlawful for a board or commission member to vote or influence the vote on any matter before the agency in which he or a member of his family has a personal interest. The prohibition would apply if the issue involved a person, business or organization from which the board member received more than $1,000 a year or with which he is negotiating employment. The state Ethics Commission could fine an official who knowingly violated the prohibition up to $2,000, and the governor or whoever appoints the board could remove him from office.

The House Rules Committee finally recommended passage of the bill this week, but its chances of navigating both houses to the governorís desk so late in the session are poor. It has potent opposition.

Who would oppose such patently worthy legislation? The Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. The argument is that it is too hard to separate public service and private interests and that we should not criminalize a little harmless greed or negligence. But it is never harmless when government subordinates the public interest to private self-interest.

We have some hope that the legislature before it adjourns will see its duty and pass one little bill to strengthen the ethical code.