Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette plunged deeply this morning into a favorite recent topic of mine — fallout of Issue 3 on gifts to legislators, including choice seats and free parking at Razorback football games.
Clearly, free parking will be gone for legislators in the future. But I would note, too, that the assertion that this parking was worth $20 per game is misleading. This is prime parking. It is prime parking that typically only comes with contributions to the Razorback Foundation, the kind of contribution you have to make to get out of the end zone and into some midfield seats. Many legislators got this preferred seating and free parking by virtue of paying face value for tickets (and sometimes paid for the tickets with campaign contributions.)
See the Razorback Foundation. Preferred parking at Razorback football games requires a $750 contribution. That’s a good bit more than $20 per game. I think you could argue that, under the old rule, a season parking pass was a violation of the ban on gifts worth more than $100, but the UA broke the gifts down individually. A point system also applies on seating. At least $200 is required for a sideline seat at the goal line. Lawmakers got choice seats without such contributions.
Parking and preferred seating have monetary value. They may not be given to legislators under the new amendment. They shouldn’t have been given before, but an old Ethics Commission ruling gave them leeway they shouldn’t have gotten.
I was chagrinned to read talk of universities considering whether a football game is a special event to which they could give freebies to legislators if all are invited. Really? Does this include special seating that regular fans must pay premiums for? And special parking which similarly require premiums? May they scatter wherever to enjoy the game or will they be seated together with an educational program from UA or ASU nabobs?
If they have a scheduled Razorback event it will be a sham and nothing but more of the same old influence-peddling. I still have some hope that some legislators have shame. I also hope the Ethics Commission will adopt enabling rules worthy of the name to prevent such subterfuges.
A red flag was raised in Wickline’s article by a quote from Sen. Jon Woods, one of the architects of the amendment. (He’s no ethics crusader. He got behind it because he’s essentially employed full-time as a legislator and wanted the part of the amendment that will raise his pay and allow him to stay in the Senate for 16 to 18 years.)
He said he and Sabin have met with more than 20 people including business leaders, lawmakers, lobbyists and civic leaders, and about 10 have sought some sort of exemption from the amendment’s ban on lobbyists providing certain gifts to the state’s elected officials.
Woods said, “We have not made any promises at this point. We are trying to listen to everyone and be responsive.”
The amendment gives to the Ethics Commission the authority to set the rules. Not the legislature. Unless it passes legislation to do so. You would hope — hope — that the 2015 legislature would wait at least one session before rolling back a voter initiative approved barely more than a month ago. But the hogs must be slopped.
More guidance for the legislature: A special caucus — political, ethnic or otherwise — is NOT a governmental body. I hope the Ethics Commission gives clear guidance that, for example, by inviting all Republicans or all black legislators, to name two caucuses, that it DOES NOT open the door to legal hog slopping.
The price of an ethical legislature is eternal vigilance. And even that isn’t enough.