Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

EDITORIAL >> ‘Reform’ hard to stomach

When lawmakers take up something labeled “reform,” particularly if it deals with ethics and public service, it is no time to be complacent. The state Senate confirmed that with its handling of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s “ethics reform” package.

From the start, McDaniel’s proposals contained a minimum of ethics, and even that was laden with sweeteners for public officials who are loathe to surrender the disguised perks of office, like meals and gifts from lobbyists and other agents for interests seeking the favor of government.

Easily the best bill in McDaniel’s package imposed a cooling-off period after public office during which legislators and other public servants could not be hired to lobby the legislature or other divisions of the government they had just left. The idea is that lawmakers and executive decision-makers should not be influenced by the prospects of future employment.

Arkansas Business supplied a good case in point last week, although the specifics would not be covered by McDaniel’s bill. Attorneys for three surgical hospitals who are in a dispute with United HealthCare supplied evidence that Julie Benafield Bowman, Gov. Mike Huckabee’s state insurance commissioner, who left last year to take an executive position with the insurance company, was wined and dined by lawyers and lobbyists for the company before and after she ruled in its favor against the hospitals. She is now the company’s director of regulatory affairs for Arkansas and Tennessee. Bowman insisted that the country club dinners did not influence her decision for the company and neither was she angling for a job when she favored the company. Fine, but does her explanation engender trust?

McDaniel’s bill would prevent state officials from becoming a lobbyist for one year after leaving their office, although it would not bar them from taking other jobs like Bowman’s with companies or organizations that have been affected by their official actions. We need not worry about that omission because even the lobbying moratorium was more than the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee could stomach. Term-limited former legislators populate the hallways at the next legislative session, working for interest groups they had helped during their legislative sojourns. The committee did not want to close that career prospect and killed the bill.

It did breathe some life into another small ethics bill, which would ban so-called “absentee lobbying.” Lobbyists could not pay for drinks and meals for lawmakers if they were not present. Lobbyists sometimes provide a credit card to treat lawmakers when they are not around.

To no one’s surprise, the senators grabbed hold of another McDaniel bill that was meant to be a sweetener for the ethics package. It would double the amount of carry-over funds that elected officials can keep in their campaign coffers and spend on political activities after the election. Officials who face no competition in an election nevertheless build large campaign treasuries, which they are then free to use up to a maximum. Lobbyists kick in to these slush funds, which buys just as much influence as free meals, travel, lodging and entertainment.

Legislators cannot be counted upon to place principle ahead of self-interest. We need an initiated act to strictly protect the public interest. Is there a group with the interest and money to undertake it?