The group Regnat Populus — named after the state motto, meaning “The People Rule” — is in the process of collecting more than 62,000 signatures to get a three-part ethics reform measure on the ballot in November. And the measure is gaining support of a number of state politicians.
Coming out in support last week, albeit to varying degrees, were Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and Lisenne Rockfeller, widow of former Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller.
Two parts of the measure have nearly universal support — at least in public — while a third part has some detractors.
The measure would impose a two-year cooling off period for state lawmakers, meaning they would have to wait two years after leaving office before they could become paid lobbyists for the legislative body where they served.
Last year, the Legislature set the period at one year, so the proposal would double it. Before last year’s law, legislators could and often did become lobbyists the day they left office. One recent high-profile example was former House Speaker Robbie Wills, who became a lobbyist for the Arkansas Installment Lenders Association immediately after giving up his speaker’s chair in 2011.
Another part of the proposed measure would adopt something similar to the so-called “Walmart Rule,” banning legislators from accepting any gifts from lobbyists — even a cup of coffee. There are a few exceptions but not many, such as for gifts from family members or for informational pamphlets.
The benefits of both reforms are plainly obvious and anyone would have a difficult time arguing against them with a straight face. Even some lobbyists might admit they wouldn’t mind having to give up showering legislators with expensive dinners and happy hours to get their attention.
The remaining part of the measure is the one creating some debate. It would ban campaign contributions to state candidates from pretty much everyone except individuals, political parties, or political action committees. The goal is to ban contributions from businesses and labor unions.
The supporters argue that these contributions from businesses have the risk and appearance of corruption. Transparency is lacking — they say — as the ultimate source of the funds may be undisclosed and untraceable.
Here’s the ironic part: Most of the politicians jumping on the bandwagon to support the measure take money from the organizations that would be banned.
Perhaps the most comical example comes from State Senate Democratic candidate Zac White, a Heber Springs lawyer challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Missy Irvin. White jumped on bandwagon last week.
A look at White campaign finance reports shows he took a contribution not only from Brent Bumpers, who is one the chairs of the ethics reform campaign, but from a business that would be banned from contributing to his campaign if the measure passed. But here is the kicker: The contributing business is McMath Wood PA, a Little Rock law firm that is listed as the location by the ethics group’s website to pick up, drop off and sign petitions. Will Bond, Democratic Party of Arkansas chairman and ethics reform supporter, also happens to be partner at that firm.
The hypocrisy is astounding. I am all for ethics reform and likely would vote for the measure if it makes the ballot. But it seems painfully obvious that supporters should start practicing what they preach.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog, The Tolbert Report, is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.