Leader Blues

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

EDITORIAL >> House closes a loophole

Here is some shocking news. The Arkansas House of Representatives voted to do what is right rather than what is expedient. It adjusted its rules so that representatives cannot raise money for their political campaigns while the legislature is in session this month.

It happened to be a particularly selfless act for a few of them. By the time this fiscal session is over the first week of March — let’s hope it finishes much earlier than that — the filing deadline for running in the Democratic or Republican primaries will have passed and the elections will be only two and a half months away. For state legislators who want to run for one of the three congressional seats that have suddenly opened up the past three weeks —and there are a dozen or more of them — that will leave little time to raise a war chest for what are usually expensive campaigns.

House Speaker Robbie Wills of Conway is in that predicament. He is running in the Democratic primary for the Second District congressional seat that Vic Snyder is vacating. He wanted to interpret last fall’s House rule banning campaign solicitations during sessions — his own idea, by the way — as exempting the fiscal session, but he recognized that it was making him look bad so he vowed not to do any fundraising and to support a rule forbidding fundraising at any session.

It was a reform that was a long time coming. It will prevent the fact and appearance of wrongdoing. Legislators who are soaking up political contributions during a session open themselves to the appearance that the gifts, typically from lobbyists and business interests, are payment for taking a stance on issues in which the contributors have a keen interest. Trust us. It happens.

There was some case for exempting the annual fiscal session from the restriction. The legislature will be dealing altogether with state budgets for the 2011 fiscal year and there is not much lobbying from private interests. You do not raise much money from state employees or from the poor, those mainly interested in the precise way that state revenues are distributed next year. But a rule needs to be a rule. Loopholes tend to get wider and wider.

The Senate chose expediency. Its rules will permit senators to raise money during the session, for re-election campaigns or for bigger races. Ten of the 35 senators are exploring races in the May primaries for a seat in the Senate, the U. S. House of Representatives or lieutenant governor after the sudden fruit-basket turnover in January. For champions of ethics reforms like Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock and Sen. Steve Bryles of Blytheville that has to be a bitter pill. Let us hope that they will be especially judicious in their solicitations. They will realize one day soon that it would be better to just go cold turkey.