Gov. Asa Hutchinson got in touch by phone to object to the use of the word “freebie” in my post on the Arkansas Blog yesterday regarding the governor’s disclosure of trips paid for by outside groups:
Do you think I as governor should be engaged in going to China or Europe promoting Arkansas and trying to bring industry to this state? Then the question is how should those trips be paid for. Do you think the taxpayers should pay it or would it better if I raised money to fund some of those trips?
The governor said that raising money for the Economic Development Foundation and using leftover campaign funds from the Republican Party was the best way to fund trips that he said were necessary for economic development in Arkansas. Regarding the Cuba trip, he said:
I didn’t fly commercial [because] I was trying to make it a quick trip, so I had to fly on a corporate plane. Rather than bill the taxpayers for a corporate plane — and you don’t want to take the corporate freebie, so I wanted to make sure I paid for that — so I used leftover inaugural funds to pay for that. I thought that was the cleanest way.
Under the circumstances, Hutchinson said, “freebies” was misleading:
We disclosed it all. It’s all legitimate. It’s all very important for the state of Arkansas. It actually could be billable to the taxpayers but I don’t feel comfortable with that. I raised the money for it and we disclosed it all appropriately. I want the public to have confidence in what we’re doing. … We need to promote jobs in this state, we need to have travel, and it’s better for the taxpayers not to have to pay for it. That’s what I’ve done and I’ve disclosed it.
My personal take on this is that the important part is disclosure. We have the disclosure laws around gifts that we do (and the governor followed them!) because we might worry that lawmakers could be beholden to donors. The governor concluded that raising money for these trips was a better option than billing them to taxpayers. Fair enough. The ethical concern is whether donors might then expect something in return from the lawmakers whose activities they are funding. I don’t think that’s an issue here, frankly, but that’s the reason that ethics watchdogs worry about gifts, or funded trips, or “freebies,” or whatever you want to call them.
I pointed out to the governor that the trips weren’t exclusively funded by the Economic Development Foundation and the party (both of which themselves have donors, of course, who are sometimes opaque). There were also other outside groups with explicitly political agendas that helped fund trips (and not all of the trips were trade missions).
“Probably 90 percent of that travel was for the big trips to China,” the governor said. “Most of it was for those big trips, those economic development trips. We did go to the Charles Koch Institute, which I disclosed. And there again, we paid for that with some inaugural leftover funds. Those are different categories, they’re not economic development. We disclosed those.”
For the record, I don’t think that the governor did anything unethical or unusual here. I will leave it to readers to decide the best word choice on the funding he received for trips.
Here is Hutchinson’s