Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, is an insurance agent who sits on the Insurance and Commerce Committee, so he’s able to offer insight and understanding when insurance legislation is considered. Also, he might be personally affected by it.
So which is more important: Expertise or objectivity? That’s a particularly tough question to answer in a part-time Legislature.
Teague is one of eight senators appointed to a new Select Committee on Senate Ethics, which has been tasked with enforcing a new set of ethical standards.
Those standards are new because the old ones weren’t working. As a result of federal-led investigations, five former legislators, including three senators, have been convicted of corruption charges. Those are Sens. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith; Jon Woods, R-Springdale; and Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff; and Reps. Micah Neal, R-Springdale; and Eddie Cooper, D-Melbourne. Then last week, Rep. Mickey Gates, R-Hot Springs, was arrested after owing the state $260,000 in taxes, penalties and interest. He had not filed a state income tax return from 2003-17. He’s running for re-election and has resisted calls to resign.
No paragraph describing Arkansas legislators’ legal problems should be that long. And it could be longer before these investigations are completed.
Back to Teague. His name is leading this column because of a comment he made last Thursday at a meeting of that new ethics committee. The Senate has adopted new rules banning members from participating in discussions about or voting on proposals that might financially benefit them or their families. However, they can participate in discussions and vote as long as that possible benefit is disclosed in a written statement read aloud by a staff member.
As reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Teague said half the bills on which he votes on the Insurance and Commerce Committee are insurance related. Would he have to disclose that fact before each vote? The answer from the Senate’s legal counsel was that one general disclosure would be enough.
It’s easy to see this becoming a routine exercise occurring at the beginning of each meeting while everyone is checking their text messages.
Teague hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. He’s so liked and respected that he’s chairman of the powerful Joint Budget Committee despite being one of only nine Democrats in a body with 35 members at full strength.
I’m including him because he illustrates a point. The Legislature is considered a part-time gig and is composed of elected officials coming from a variety of occupations. In the Senate, Teague is the only full-time insurance agent. Is his experience valuable enough to counteract any conflict of interest he might appear to have? Or should he serve on a different committee and let insurance policy be dictated by people with no experience in insurance? Likewise, should the three senators who are farmers – Sens. Blake Johnson, R-Corning; Bryan King, R-Green Forest; and Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch – abstain from all farming legislation? And what about legislation that affects every senator, such as tax cuts?
These potential conflicts will always be a part of the Arkansas Legislature, where the idea is to have a body composed of real people from diverse backgrounds. Otherwise, Arkansas would have to transform the Legislature into a full-time gig (which no one wants); expect legislators to quit their outside careers (Do their spouses have to quit their jobs too?); or elect only retired individuals (who still might be affected by certain bills).
Given that none of these are realistic, the only alternative is to do what’s being done: Periodically change the rules and try to refine the culture when the current rules and culture aren’t working. Which would be now, obviously.
Also, voters must pay attention to their choices.
In Hot Springs, one of those is Gates, who’s still on the ballot despite being arrested for not paying his taxes.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.