Four of the 135 members of the 2013-14 Arkansas Legislature probably are going to jail, along with a fifth who served earlier. More might join them before the FBI is finished. Let’s consider why this is happening, beyond the standard explanation that, “All politicians are crooks,” which is not true.
The four ex-legislators – Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale; Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale; Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith; and Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff – have been found guilty (Woods) or pleaded guilty (the others) to various financial crimes, a common denominator being misuse of the state’s General Improvement Fund for their own benefit. A fifth ex-legislator, Rep. Eddie Cooper, D-Melbourne, who served from 2005 to the beginning of 2011, has also pleaded guilty to financial wrongdoings including misuse of the fund.
The GIF is a grant program directing state dollars to specific local projects at the behest of individual legislators. The process has changed many times because of political machinations or court rulings, the latest last year. Its latest incarnation sent grants to planning districts that rubber-stamped legislators’ wishes.
Basically, it’s pork barrel spending, which is not completely a bad thing. Legislators at both the state and national levels have long argued they should fund local programs for their constituents. Some of this money has gone to worthy recipients.
Take any collection of human beings – legislators, police officers, pastors, newspaper columnists – and some will make bad choices that reflect poorly on the rest. Still, four out of 135 will go from serving together in the Legislature to serving at the same time in prison. That’s 3 percent, which is a lot. And that’s not including Rep. Cooper.
Why is this happening?
Part of the blame must fall on the GIF itself. Legislators were in positions to individually steer money to local constituencies without much accountability. There’s always an inherent risk with corruption when it involves government money – in other words, other people’s. When you’re spending billions of dollars, skimming thousands off the top can feel like picking up pennies from the sidewalk.
That’s especially so if you can find a way to justify it, which leads to a second factor – the financial pressures and temptations facing legislators.
The Arkansas Legislature is a middle-class group with few wealthy individuals and quite a few relatively young ones. The pay is decent – one legislator estimated $45,000 to $65,000, depending on how many meetings they attend. In other words, it’s the kind of money that can almost get your kids in private school, but not quite. Being a legislator is supposed to be a part-time job, but to be effective requires a significant time commitment. Many have other businesses and careers, but managing it all is a challenge. I’m convinced Files simply got in trouble with his construction business, couldn’t give it the attention it needed while also serving as a senator, got desperate, and then started grasping at lifelines. At the same time, there are expenses involved in campaigning, maintaining an office, and fulfilling social obligations.
Meanwhile, when legislators are in Little Rock, they’re treated as if they’re important people by lobbyists, consultants and others. Some of those people have access to money, and a few apparently are willing to share a little bit – for the price of sponsoring a bill that might do some good anyway.
I’m not justifying any wrongdoing or encouraging pity for legislators, most of whom are doing fine. I’m just saying there are temptations.
Politics attracts both idealists and cynics. Some are cynical from the beginning, but many of the cynics were once idealists. It’s a business that inherently involves compromise. The good kind involves working with people from all walks of life to craft legislation serving the common good. But there can be gray areas on issues of morality and character, too. It’s also a business encouraging glorification of self. Campaigns involve telling others you are a wise decision-maker, loving family member, and great American. Glorifying self, even for supposedly good reasons, is a dangerous path.
Thankfully, in our representative democracy, we’re not governed by authoritarian leaders. One downside? The system, the incentives, the temptations, the pressures – put it all together, and even good people can make bad decisions.
But a worse decision would be for good people to avoid it altogether, lest the authoritarian leaders gain a foothold.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.