House Speaker Jeremy Gillam‘s bill to gut the state’s ethics law passed 83-8 in the House yesterday. It’s on to the Senate. The bill’s backers say that they are planning to make a technical correction to address some, but not all, of its more egregious problems. (No such amendment has been filed thus far — we’ll be watching out for it.)
“This bill makes some changes to the Arkansas ethics law, or Amendment 94,” said Rep. Michelle Gray, a co-sponsor, introducing the bill on the House floor. I’ll say. Last week I documented at length the variety of exemptions and loopholes in the bill that appear to be designed to allow legislators to enjoy more lobbyist largesse. A few highlights from the bill, as currently written:
* It would codify additional exemptions for travel junkets.
* It would potentially open the door for lobbyists directly paying for plane tickets to conferences, events, or even one-on-one “briefings” with an advocacy group or a corporation (this goes even beyond the “regional or national conferences” that was already inserted as a massive travel junket loophole by Sen. Jon Woods in Act 1280 of 2015).
* It would create an explicit exemption for swag given out to legislators at certain fancy balls and galas. The bill would literally allow, say, laptops to be handed out to each attendee of the Speaker’s Ball.
* An exemption for international travel “arranged” by a foreign nation would allow lobbyists to pay for plane tickets and hotels, plus food and drinks at the destination.
* An exemption for travel “arranged” by the U.S. government would allow lobbysists to pay for plane tickets and hotels, plus food and drinks at the destination.
* It could potentially open up additional opportunities for lobbyists, in practice, to wine and dine legislators so long as it happened at a conference and was a listed event.
* It would allow unlimited giveaways of any kind at inaugural events of any constitutional officer, member of the General Assembly, or the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as the “recognition events” of the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.
* In addition to opening the floodgates for lobbyists, Gillam’s exemptions would also, in practice, add situations in which the $100-cap for gifts from non-lobbyists no longer applies.
Some of the language in the bill is vague (a cynic might wonder whether loopholes deriving from broadly worded legalese is precisely the point) so some open questions remain about precisely what Gillam’s bill would do. That said, it certainly appears that the result of this bill, along with Ac 1280 and other shenanigans, would be an almost total shredding of the prohibitions on lobbyists originally intended by Amendment 94. Basically, all that would be left as a strict prohibition would be one-on-one wining and dining in town.
It’s worth noting that the list of stuff that is not considered a prohibited “gift” for the purposes of Amendment 94 is already more than two pages long! Gillam and Gray want yet more exceptions. Gray described it as a “clean-up.” Some might call it a muddying of the swamp. It’s scandalous and shameless.
Gray said that in consultation with the Ethics Commission, they are planning a technical correction of the bill “to change a few words.” This appears to be a reference to the exemption for “transportation for tours or briefings … furthering the person’s understanding of issues affecting the people of the State of Arkansas.” Gillam says that this was intended to allow a lobbyist to pay for, for example, a van for an on-site tour of a factory. But as written, it appears to allow lobbyists to pay for travel costs to and from anything that could be sold as “furthering the person’s understanding of issues affecting the people of the State of Arkansas.” Plane tickets, not just vans. That would blow the lid off of any prohibition on lobbyists using giveaway junkets to curry favor with legislators.
If the language is clarified to strictly limit the meaning of the “transportation,” that would make the bill incrementally less destructive of ethics law in Arkansas, though that address just one of many potential problems.
Rep. Warwick Sabin, one of the original sponsors of the bill that became Amendment 94, spoke against the bill. He described his original intentions when he pushed for that bill, inspired by a citizens group aiming to create stronger ethics standards for state government and curb the influence of lobbyists, corporations, and big money on state politics.
“Amendment 94 was the product of a lot of compromise,” he said. “In 2015, there was a lot heart and thought and headache that went into creating that enabling legislation. … If we’re going to make any changes to it, I think we need to be really responsible, really accountable, and really careful. The legislation as it’s currently written does have a loophole that you could pretty much drive a freight train through.”
Sabin expressed the hope that the revisions in the amendment would re-write the bill to be “narrowly tailored so that we’re not breaking faith with the people we represent. We made a deal with them.”
Sabin continued: “It’s important that we…do our part that we continue maintain a sense not just of ethics but of responsibility — that we’re making sure that we’re not trying to do an end run around these rules that everybody agreed upon.”
Hilariously, during questioning, Rep. Kim Hammer implied that the voters simply didn’t realize what was in Amendment 94 (surely the public would prefer that legislators be allowed to get unlimited swag bags and freebie international travel paid for by lobbyists!).
Gray inaccurately said, numerous times, that the exemptions for foreign travel could only be paid for by foreign governments. I hesitate to say that Gray is simply lying to her colleagues, but I’ve read the bill, and that’s not at all what’s in it. As long as the trip is “arranged” by a foreign government, all costs — travel, lodging, food and drink — can be paid for by anyone, including lobbyists.
One can hope that this too will be fixed by amendment. We’ll see. You know what they say, the lobbyist’s in the details.
I asked David Couch, an attorney with the group Regnat Populus that originally pushed for Amendment 94 for comment. He responded:
The proposed bill weakens the ethics measures that were a compromise between the citizens working on the initiative process and the members of the General Assembly. This bill allows lobbyists to pay for trips all over the world for members of the General Assembly. It a trip is work related and designed to inform or educate the member of the General Assembly to further his understanding of issues affecting the people of the State of Arkansas then the State of Arkansas should pay for that and not a lobbyist or some group trying to influence legislation in Arkansas. The General Assembly could and should allocate money for these conferences, tours and briefings. If it is valuable to the member – then he should be held accountable to the taxpayers and not the lobbyists.
The bill passed 83-8, with a scattering of Democrats — and Rep. Kim Hendren, God bless him — voting no.
Legislators love their freebies. They’re gambling that they can slide this through without the voters realizing that they are making a mockery of the ethics reforms that the people voted for.