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Brawner: Responding to Darr and Shoffner

Posted: January 11, 2014 - 5:25pm
Steve Brawner
Steve Brawner

Arkansas has seven constitutional officers: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and land commissioner. In the past year, two of them, first Treasurer Martha Shoffner and then Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, have been forced to resign due to financial improprieties.

At some point, Arkansans should ask ourselves, to paraphrase the old breakup excuse, if it’s not just them, but it’s also us.

Let’s be clear: It is mostly them. Shoffner resigned from her office and is awaiting trial over accusations that she accepted $36,000 in payments from a bond broker with whom the state did business. At least two of those payments were delivered in pie boxes. That’s B movie-level bribery. At first, she tried to plead guilty.

Darr, meanwhile, resigned after accepting $11,000 in fines levied by the Arkansas Ethics Commission — the most ever for any public official — over misuse of campaign and taxpayer funds. He says he was unfamiliar with the laws that got him in trouble and admits to being guilty of sloppy paperwork, but he had no ill intent.

At some point, after we’re done talking about Shoffner and Darr, Arkansans should ask ourselves what laws and policies made these events more likely to happen.

Did low pay contribute? All the constitutional officers receive comparatively low salaries. Shoffner’s was $54,594; Darr’s as lieutenant governor — traditionally a part-time position — was $41,896.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree with you. Yes, that’s more than a lot of us make, particularly those on fixed incomes. Yes, they ran for those offices knowing what the salaries were.

On the other hand, you get what you pay for.

And in their defense, sort of, being a constitutional officer can be expensive. They are expected to see and be seen, often by people who make much more money than they do. They must campaign for their offices, which inevitably requires the use of their personal funds, including an upfront infusion. It’s apparent that the nature of their offices contributed to personal financial problems for Shoffner and Darr.

Solutions? For one, the state treasurer should be appointed by the governor and not elected. The state treasurer is a mid-level bureaucratic functionary who ought to show up for work in business attire, do their job and then go home — and not be forced to use their own money to campaign. It should be structured so that the governor has the freedom to set an appropriate salary to get the best person for the job. The current state treasurer, Charles Robinson, is a lifelong, drama-free state employee appointed by Gov. Beebe to complete Shoffner’s term. Democracy has somehow survived the fact that the Arkansas state treasurer was not elected.

Same goes for at least the auditor and land commissioner and maybe the secretary of state. Appoint them; don’t elect them.

Meanwhile, part of the reason Darr got into trouble was because of questions regarding mileage reimbursements he claimed from his home in Springdale to his State Capitol office. Legislators are allowed to claim those miles, by the way.

Darr should have been allowed to claim those miles, or at least some of them. Last I checked, it really is a long way from Springdale to Little Rock. He could have taken advantage of a state-owned vehicle as did his predecessor, Bill Halter, but he did not do that.

Halter and his predecessor, Win Rockefeller, were independently wealthy men who lived in Little Rock. The nature of the lieutenant governor’s job — part-time with a low salary — makes it likely that anyone holding the position must possess at least one of those two qualities, and the mileage reimbursement policy only makes this worse. We should try to make this position more accessible to potential candidates no matter where they live.

Nothing I’m writing is meant to excuse Darr or Shoffner. However, in the midst of the condemnation, the state ought to ask itself some basic questions about how certain duties are fulfilled, and how it pays people to fulfill them.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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lachowsj
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lachowsj 01/13/14 - 07:53 am
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Lt. Governor

I mostly agree with Steve Brawner's reasoning. The State Treasurer should be an appointee of the Governor, but subject to some sort of approval process by the legislature. The Governor and Lieutenant Governor should, like in most states and like the President and Vice-President, run as a team. The main job of the Lieutenant Governor is to be ready to assume the office in case the Governor cannot complete his term. We are not well served by having those two offices occupied by persons from opposing parties and with opposing philosophies. A change in political direction should happen in an orderly way, when the voters say it should happen, not because of some random event.

As to raising the pay of constitutional officers, any consideration of that should be paired with more strict and transparent rules about expense reimbursement and outside payment.

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