In pre-filing, Democrats’ seek ethics package, leaders seek fiscal session end

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 29 views 

Bills proposed during the first week of pre-filing for next year’s legislative session included a package of 11 ethics and accountability bills filed by Democrats in the House and Senate, and a proposed constitutional amendment by the Senate’s majority and minority leaders that would end the Legislature’s even-year fiscal sessions.

The Democrats’ ethics bills would:

– Allow citizens who receive an adverse decision from a judge to sue the judge if, in their case, the judge later is convicted or pleads guilty to bribery.
– Require disclosure of “dark money” sources and limit coordination of political advertising between candidates and third parties.
– Increase penalties for abuse of office and abuse of public trust and add activities that occur between an officeholder’s election and his or her swearing in.
– Prohibit political action committees (PACs) from contributing directly to candidates.
– Prohibit (PACs) from contributing money to other PACs.
– Require the secretary of state to post PAC’s financial reports online. Those reports currently are filed in paper form at the Capitol.
– Prohibit a legislator from having more than one PAC aside from caucus chairs, who could have one personal PAC and one for the caucus.
– Prohibit elected officials from soliciting or accepting loans from lobbyists.
– Prohibit elected officials from being registered lobbyists at the state or national level.
– Prohibit fundraising for an election until the immediately preceding general election has passed. Candidates now can accept donations two years prior to a race. This would shorten that process by about five-and-a-half months.
– Increase penalties for personal use of campaign funds so that they more closely resemble penalties for theft of property. Currently, it’s a Class A misdemeanor. Under the legislation, the penalties would range from Class A misdemeanor (less than $500 in value); Class D felony ($500 to less than $5,000); Class C felony ($5,000 to less than $25,000); or Class B felony ($25,000 or more).

The bills are similar to a package proposed earlier this year before a special session focused on raising money for highways. Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not want the session to expand to ethics, and Democrats did not push the issue.

The bills are sponsored in the Senate by Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, and in the House by Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock; Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock; and Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville.

Ingram said the bills allowing victims of judicial misconduct to sue the judge – Senate Bill 6 and House Bill 1007 – grew from the well-publicized case where former Circuit Judge Mike Maggio pleaded guilty to reducing a jury verdict from $5 million to $1 million after receiving a campaign donation from the nursing home operator.

“He’s pled guilty to it, and (the family has) no recourse,” he said. “They can’t sue him civilly.”

Democrats now control only 26 of the House’s 100 seats and nine of the Senate’s 35, so they’ll need significant support from Republicans.

House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said Democratic sponsors will be seeking Republican co-sponsors. He thinks the bills will get a fair look.

“I would hope my friends across the aisle would look at it and see that these are definitely not partisan bills,” he said. “They’re not wedge issues. They’re not gotcha bills. I really think they’re things that the public wants us to do to clean the system up a little bit.”

Ingram said he doesn’t have Republican sponsors but that the legislation is “pretty straightforward, commonsense stuff.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, wrote in a text, “I think there will be considerable opportunity for common ground. Ethics and good government should not be a partisan issue. We’ll be looking seriously at their proposals as well as others and I am sure we will find a good package to move forward.”

Hendren and Ingram, the Senate majority and minority leaders, also are sponsoring a resolution that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment ending the Legislature’s even-year fiscal sessions.

The fiscal sessions were approved by the voters in 2008 and were meant to focus on budget matters, but Ingram said they are evolving into another regular session. He said the Arkansas Constitution promoted a citizen Legislature.

“I fear that we’re getting away from that,” he said. “We’re getting full-time legislators. Committee meetings are going on five days a week, and it’s not necessary.”

Ingram said the increasing demands of the position are discouraging potential good candidates from running for office.

The bills are part of what House Democrats are calling their LEAD agenda: Lowering crime, strengthening Education, government Accountability and community Development. As one example, Gray pointed to House Bill 1014, a bill pre-filed by Leding that would provide an income tax deduction of up to $500 for teachers who purchase certain classroom items.

Other legislation proposed during the first week of pre-filing included:

– House Bill 1002 by Rep. Mark McElroy, D-Tillar, would require new school buses to be equipped with seat belts.
– House Bill 1003 by Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, would create an income tax exemption for veterans’ and survivors’ retirement benefits.
– House Bill 1004 by Rep. Charles Blake, D-North Little Rock, would automatically register citizens to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license or personal identification card unless the person declines the registration.
– House Bill 1013 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, amends the law concerning stalking a child via the internet to include arranging a meeting with another adult claiming to be a family member or authority figure for the purpose of sexual activity.