An Aug. 25 Arkansas Times article concerning possible conflicts of interest by college and university trustees failed to mention that earlier this year the legislature approved a bill to regulate business dealings between trustees and their institutions, and Gov. Mike Huckabee vetoed it.
The bill (HB 2501), introduced by Rep. Jodie Mahony, would have prohibited contracts between members of state boards and commissions and the agencies they serve unless the contract was approved by the state Ethics Commission. The bill also would have applied to state employees. A similar law already applies to board members and employees of the public schools.
Huckabee’s veto message of April 13 said:
“While I recognize that the intent of this bill is noble, its application would have a chilling impact on the operations of state government. The large vote totals for the measure signal a legitimate desire on the part of the Legislature to create proper walls between public service and private gain. But the provisions of this bill would prove to be more a hindrance to good government than a help. The fact that this measure was enacted so late in the session and contains two significant errors in the first section — an incorrect code reference and an amendment that would render the existing law confusing — leads me to believe there may be additional problems with the bill. I would implore the members of the General Assembly to sustain this veto and to address this issue in future sessions when there is time to discuss the pitfalls in the bill.”
Mahony said last week that Huckabee’s reference to “significant errors” in the bill was “eyewash.” He said an employee of the state Code Revision Commission told him the errors were minor. He said he didn’t understand the rest of Huckabee’s message and hadn’t talked with the governor about it. “Nobody would decline to be on a board because of this bill,” he said. He didn’t try to override the veto because he didn’t have enough votes, he said.
Asked about Huckabee’s own problems with the Ethics Commission, Mahony said, “I wasn’t going to mention it, but the governor seems to have a lack of enthusiasm for the Ethics Commission and its director.” Huckabee has been at odds with the commission over the years, principally over his acceptance of gifts, and he once sued the commission, unsuccessfully, because he disagreed with its actions.
Mahony said he introduced HB 2501 because legislative audits had revealed possible conflicts of interest involving members of state boards and commissions. He mentioned specifically a controversial proposal by the University of Central Arkansas to purchase land in which a UCA trustee had a financial interest. At the time, state law prevented the trustees of all the four-year universities except the University of Arkansas from doing business with their institutions. Hardin was seeking legislation to give UCA the same exemption as UA, but both Hardin and Mahony said last week that Hardin had agreed to HB 2501 as an alternative. Hardin’s bill giving UCA the same exemption as UA was approved by the legislature also and not vetoed by the governor. Other universities are expected to seek similar legislation next session.
Mahony said he hoped that someone would sponsor a bill like HB 2501 next year. He will leave the legislature at the end of this year because of term limits.