By JOHN LYON
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — An ethics bill expected to be filed this week contains ideas that have failed in the past, but lawmakers who helped crafted the new legislation say they are confident of success this year, for several reasons.
Some, including Gov. Mike Beebe, say they would like to see stronger reforms.
House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr., D-Arkansas City, and Senate President Pro Tem Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, say they plan to file identical bills in the House and Senate that would prohibit a former legislator from becoming a lobbyist until one year after leaving office. The requirement would apply to any legislator elected in 2012 or later.
The legislation also would limit legislative reimbursements for travel to out-of-state conferences to the least expensive reasonable airfare or mileage available. The offices of the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem would be the final authority on what is reasonable.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers began crafting the legislation about two months before the session began on Jan. 10. Moore and Bookout have been working quietly to build a consensus before debuting the measure.
This session is the first since the 2010 general election, which swept into office in Arkansas the largest number of Republicans since Reconstruction — though Democrats still hold slim majorities in the Legislature — and ousted a host of Democratic incumbents across the country.
"The press has always been interested, but the feeling of legislators was that the public didn’t care" about ethics reform, said Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton. "I think the election sort of told people the public does care."
Clemmer unsuccessfully proposed limiting legislators’ travel reimbursements during the 2009 session. She is part of the group that worked on the new bill, which she said proposes rules similar to the rules that apply to state employees’ travel reimbursements.
"We’re hoping we can save the state some money," she said.
Also in the group are Sens. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, and Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, both of whom unsuccessfully proposed bills in previous sessions to require a cooling-off period for former lawmakers who want to become lobbyists.
Baker said it is important to have a clear distinction between legislative activities and lobbying activities, and the line can appear to be blurred when ex-lawmakers go directly into lobbying. He said he senses a more receptive attitude toward the idea this year.
"We came off an election cycle where there was a lot more focus on transparency, and that may be part of it," he said.
Thompson noted that the November election ushered in a slew of first-time legislators. Forty-one of the 98 occupied seats in the House — two are vacant — and six of the 35 seats in the Senate are held by legislative newcomers.
"Any time you get new people in the House and Senate, that allows for a fresh look at things," Thompson said.
In past sessions, some House members complained that they would be affected by a waiting period sooner than senators because House members are up for re-election every two years instead of every four years. However, state law requires district lines to be redrawn this year, and following redistricting all Senate seats will be up for re-election in 2012.
Thompson said that makes the timing right to pass a cooling-off period, because "it will apply to everyone at the same time."
Moore and Bookout say their work to secure bipartisan support should help the bill’s chances.
"I tried to bring people together so that we could work on an issue that was certainly important to both Republicans and Democrats," Moore said.
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Beebe, said Friday that the governor had hoped to see a two-year cooling-off period and would have preferred that current lawmakers not be exempted.
"If something is good enough to pass into law, then why would it not be good enough for you?" DeCample said.
Thompson said a one-year waiting period is appropriate because most of the issues lobbyists are interested in come up in the regular sessions, which occur every two years. He said the exemption for current lawmakers is reasonable because "nobody likes to have a job and then have the rules change in the middle of the game."
The bill will not address the gifts, including meals, that legislators commonly receive from lobbyists. Little Rock lawyer Dan Greenberg, a former state representative who fought unsuccessfully in 2007 for public disclosure of all gifts to lawmakers, said the pending bill "sounds like a minor improvement."
"I think at some level everybody understands that when you’re giving gifts to a public official of one kind or another, it’s wise that at the very least they be disclosed," he said.
Arkansas legislators now have to report gifts valued at $100 or more.
Mark Jenkins, spokesman for the Green Party of Arkansas, said lawmakers should be barred from accepting any gifts from lobbyists.
"There is no reason for a lobbyist to give a legislator anything except their opinion and information on their issue," Jenkins said.
House Minority Leader John Burris, R-Harrison, said the group that worked on the bill discussed gifts but could not reach a consensus. He said there were several things he would have liked to see in the bill that aren’t there, but he still considers it "pretty significant reform."
"At the end of the day, it’s about getting 51 people for us, 18 for the Senate, to agree," Burris said. "That’s what compromise is, and that’s how legislation gets made."