The University of Arkansas was rebuffed today by the state Ethics Commission on its request that the commission reconsider its earlier decision that Amendment 94 prohibits giving legislators and other state officials cut-rate preferred seating at Razorback games.
Legislators have typically enjoyed preferred seating in return for only paying face value for tickets (often with campaign money). Other fans must make contributions to the Razorback Foundation to improve their seating and that arrangement has now been rigidly formalized. Those 50-yard-line seats cost big bucks. See the rules here.
In June, the Ethics Commission said the preferred seating was the equivalent of a gift and now prohibited. The UA apparently caught heat from legislators unhappy about the prospect of having to pay more money to get out of the end zone and asked the Ethics Commission to reconsider. It offered this artifice — “contracting” the assignment of preferred seats to the Razorback Foundation, which could decide to waive the extra payments. The Foundation argued that it employs no lobbyists. Thus, it figured it could rain goodies on the deserving 135 and others.
I’m happy to say the Ethics Commission voted 3-0 today, with one member absent and one abstaining because of a legal association with those involved, to uphold the staff’s opinion that the trickery wasn’t good enough to slide by Amendment 94. That amendment, adopted by voters last year, nominally ended lobbyist gifts or gifts by those who employ lobbyists. For one thing, the amendment didn’t override a pre-existing statutory ban of gifts worth more than $100 to legislators.
Today’s opinion was a good thing, given the joke that has already been made of Amendment 94 by lobbyists. You can imagine how quickly a lobbying outfit like Mullenix and Associates would figure out a way to “contract” out meal and wine service to a nonprofit for purposes of evading the laughably porous Amendment 94. (Mullenix, the disgraced Gilbert Baker, gambling industry lobbyist Robbie Willis and others will be marching martinis and prime rib through just such a loophole tonight in feting legislators at Kochfest, otherwise known as the American Legislative Exchange Council get-your-cookie-cutter-legislation-here convention in San Diego. The lobbyists have “scheduled” a fancy steak dinner as part of the program, which makes it legal under a little trick Sen. Jon Woods stuffed into an ethics “clarification” measure this year.)
Tickets to a university football game handled by a university ticket office that produces money for university facilities are obviously products of a major public institution. That institution has a phalanx of lobbyists — paid and unpaid — and goodwill ambassadors such as the football team who seek to enhance the institution’s stature (and state revenue) by keeping legislators happy. They should not be able to pass out highly coveted favors to achieve those ends if the ethics amendment has any meaning.
So good news today.
I do wonder about this. The Ethics Commission has deemed it not a strictly personal expenditure to use campaign money to buy Razorback tickets. It can be viewed as a campaign activity, they’ve decided, pressing flesh with fellow Hog fans. But is the quality of the seat not a strictly personal matter? Could you use campaign money for an upgrade? I guess you could argue there are more valuable connections at midfield than in the cheap seats.
Of course, the legislature by simple majority vote can fix the law to get their good seats. Don’t put it past this greedy bunch. You can bet the UA would lobby for it.