Senate adopts new ethics rules, votes for Bates and Cash statues; Governor signs teacher pay raise

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 497 views 

The Arkansas Senate on Monday (Feb. 18) unanimously approved both a measure that would prohibit Arkansas lawmakers from dual work as a lobbyist and a proposal to place statues of civil rights activist Daisy Bates and rockabilly music icon Johnny Cash at the U.S. Capitol.

Both Senate Bills 256 and 75, which were approved on official Presidents’ and Daisy Gatson Bates days in Arkansas, will now move to the House Rules and House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committees, respectively, where both measures are expected to be further debated as the 92nd General Assembly enters its sixth week.

SB 256 by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, is one of a half-dozen bipartisan bills first introduced two weeks ago as part of an ethics reform package to bolster accountability and address corruption among public officials. After introducing his bill, Ingram answered a volley of questions from senators on key details of SB 256, including if there were already laws on the books that prohibited the same activity.

Sens. Jason Rapert and Mat Pitsch, GOP lawmakers from Conway and Fort Smith, respectively, also quizzed the Democratic senator on how SB 256 would impact lawmakers who had to register as lobbyists as part of their full-time jobs or engaged in lobbying work in other states or at the federal level.

In the end, Ingram matter-of-factly told his fellow senators that his proposal would simply prohibit a legislator or constitutional state officer from serving as a registered lobbyist during their tenure in office, in Arkansas or elsewhere.

“You can’t be a registered lobbyist and serve in the Arkansas General Assembly under this bill nor can you be a constitutional officer and be a registered lobbyist,” Ingram repeated several times. “I just don’t think you can serve two masters, here or in another state, and be a lobbyist. I just think that is something you will have to deal with when you decide to run and make that decision.”

After Ingram finished his pitch, Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, explained that SB 256 and the other five ethics bills in the legislative pipeline were separate from the newly-created Select Senate Committee. That Senate panel was created in June after former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock was indicted by a federal grand jury on 12-counts of wire fraud and falsifying tax returns.

Hutchinson resigned from the 35-member body last summer after charges were filed and has denied any wrongdoing. However, Hendren and House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and other House and Senate members rolled out the new ethics proposals on Feb. 4 that lawmakers hope to enact into law before the session’s end.

Besides Ingram’s bill, the ethics package includes measures that prohibit elected officials from having multiple political action committees, or PACs, raises the maximum fine for ethics violations, and increases the penalty for using campaign funds for personal use.

The proposals also include a measure to prevent lawmakers from getting contributions from multiple PACs, and a so-called retirement “clawback” provision for lawmakers who commit felony crimes as elected officials. A final proposal would support a request by the state Ethics Commission to change appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year to include funds for two additional staff positions and a $186,000 increase in the agency’s operating budget.

“We can’t govern behavior of people outside our Senate body with just Senate rules,” said Hendren, who is Sen. Hutchinson’s first cousin. “Let me be clear, these are all of the (bills) that will be proposed, but these are the six that both Democrats and Republicans, both House and Senate members looked at and said we all agree these are some basic steps to make us reassure the voters and the people that we are trying to get our house in order.”

After Hendren’s appeal, SB 256 was easily approved by a vote of 34-0. Over the past two years, eight lawmakers from both parties have been entrapped amid a flurry of recent federal indictments, plea deals and convictions involving bribery and corruption of public officials. The latest arraignment involved former State Senator Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, who was indicted by a federal grand jury on Jan. 11 on charges of conspiracy, bribery and honest services wire fraud. He has since plead not guilty. The former legislator, lobbyist and chairman of the Arkansas GOP served in the Arkansas legislature from 2001 to 2013.

Later during the two-hour Senate meeting, SB 75 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, was approved by a vote of 33-0 with no debate. Wallace first introduced his legislation to replace two U.S. capitol statues with Daisy Bates and Johnny Cash in late January, but the proposal stalled for several weeks as other lawmakers offered competing bills to replace the statues of deceased Arkansans U.M. Rose and James P. Clarke at the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.

For example, Walmart’s Sam Walton, former Sen. Dale Bumpers and other deceased civic, military and business leaders have been mentioned as potential replacement statues. Two weeks ago, however, the Senate settled on Bates and Cash as their top choices in a non-binding vote.

The entire National Statuary Hall collection consists of 100 bronze or marble statues contributed by 50 states, two statues each. The first statue was placed in 1870. By 1971, all 50 states had contributed at least one statue, and by 1990 all but five states had contributed two statues.

Daisy Bates was a Little Rock civil rights activist who worked to end segregation. The state honors her with “Daisy Gatson Bates Day” on the third Monday in February, which is today. Cash, one of the best-selling music artists of all time, is mostly remembered for his unique country music style that embraced rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk and gospel. He was born in Kingsland, Arkansas and grew up in Dyess, Arkansas.

Also, on Monday at the State Capitol, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law HB 1145 into law as educators, teachers and state Department of Education officials looked on. The new law will raise minimum teacher pay by $4,000 over the next four years in 168 of the state’s 235 school districts, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.

“This is an important day for Arkansas teachers, who will start their career at a salary that better reflects the importance of the job and our respect for their role in the lives of our children,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “It’s also an important day for our state as we signal yet again that Arkansas is a great place to live, to work, and to teach school. This will allow us to retain our homegrown teachers and attract talented teachers from other states.”

On Tuesday, Hutchinson will sign SB 211 in the second signing ceremony of the 2019 session. Known as the 5.9 tax cut plan, SB 211 will reduce Arkansas’ top marginal tax rate from 6.9% to 5.9% in two years at a cost of $97 million. This is the third phase of the Governor’s three-part plan to provide substantive tax relief for all Arkansans and to make Arkansas’s tax code more competitive with surrounding states.