LITTLE ROCK Lt. Gov. Bill Halter on Tuesday defended the state paying the travel costs of his staff to speak on behalf of a lottery proposal he wants to put on the November ballot after an opponent said it amounted to the state helping fund a political campaign.
State law allows Halter and his staff to use the lieutenant governor's office to promote the proposed lottery, but he's required to file reports with the state if the office spends $500 or more related to advocating the "qualification, disqualification, passage, or defeat." Halter's office said it's spent less than $500 for costs associated with promoting the lottery.
"This is a major public-policy issue, just like there are many other public-policy issues out there, and all of the constitutional officers and all the legislators and every other elected official has comments and works on public policy, as do their staffs," Halter told reporters after speaking to a group in downtown Little Rock about the lottery. "Our staff works on this and a host of other issues."
Halter spokesman Garry Hoffmann said that the office has spent a little under $400 for travel reimbursements for trips to groups to talk about the lottery. Hoffmann said the reimbursements paid for an April trip he took to West Memphis to speak to one group, and for two trips that chief of staff Michael Cook took to speak to groups in Mena and Benton County.
Aside from that, Hoffmann said the office has probably spent less than $25 in postage mostly thank you letters from the lieutenant governor to groups or people he's spoken with about the lottery.
Jerry Cox, head of the conservative Arkansas Family Council, admitted that Halter is allowed to use his office to promote the measure, but questioned the appropriateness. The council is campaigning against Halter's lottery proposal.
"Bottom line, I think it's legal but it doesn't pass the smell test," Cox said. "I think the state of Arkansas has indirectly subsidized this lottery effort."
Halter last month submitted 138,615 signatures to get his proposed lottery constitutional amendment on the fall ballot more than the 77,468 needed from registered voters. Election officials are now reviewing the petitions to verify that what Halter turned in included the required number of valid signatures.
The director of the state's ethics panel said he's viewed state law as allowing public funds to be used to promote ballot measures, as long as they're reported properly. And changes in the state's ethics laws last year give Halter even more leeway to use his office to push the lottery amendment.
Lawmakers last year passed legislation that exempted efforts to support or oppose a ballot measure from a restriction on office use for campaigning.
The change put into law what Ethics Commission Executive Director Graham Sloan said the panel had already viewed as the restriction on use of public funds for campaigns.
Sloan said he asked for the change to be included in legislation that also raised the fines for ethics violations after the panel had faced other complaints filed over use of government resources for ballot measures.
The most high-profile was a 2005 complaint filed against Mike Huckabee that accused the former governor of violating the law by using state computers to send e-mail messages, urging voters to support issuing bonds for roads and schools. The panel in 2006 dismissed the complaint filed by Drew Pritt, who briefly ran against Halter in the 2006 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.
The law is unclear on what expenses Halter's office would have to report. Sloan said he believes it covers "out of pocket" expenses such as travel reimbursements, postage, surveys or private contracts.
Halter said he's not going to measure how much time staffers spend out of each day working on issues related to the lottery.
"I don't think it's the bulk of their time, but I don't do an accounting," Halter said.
Halter has formed a ballot question committee to campaign for the lottery and the committee reported that it's raised more than $477,000. The lieutenant governor said he's never asked from his office or at the Capitol for potential donors to give money to the lottery campaign.
Hoffmann said during his speeches he's careful to avoid directly advocating for or against the passage of the proposed constitutional amendment
"Our speeches are more informational, educational and I think they fall short of expressing advocacy," Hoffmann said.