By Rob Moritz
Arkansas News Bureau
If a special session is called to address school employees’ skyrocketing health insurance rates, some legislators also want to see ethics reform on the agenda.
But while there appears to be a general agreement that the Legislature needs to enact tougher measures regarding the conduct of elected officials in the wake of recent highly publicized lapses in judgment in the use of campaign funds, whether any reforms are added to a special session could come down who gets the credit.
On the same day last week that Gov. Mike Beebe announced a one-month delay in the start of when teachers can begin signing up for health insurance, giving lawmakers extra time to reach a consensus on holding down the cost, Republican and Democrats in the House issued separate statements on ethics reform.
The House Republican Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus each chided the other to follow its lead on the issue.
Both parties "must work together to end loopholes created by backroom politics and support more transparency in our government," said Rep. Brent Talley, D-Hope, chairman of the Democratic caucus, adding that his group had been working on reform legislation for "the last few weeks."
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, the House majority leader, fired back that House Republicans are working on substantive ethics reform "and we invite our Democratic colleagues to join us."
Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, a leading supporter of ethics reform, said the Legislature should tackle ethics reform sooner rather than later, possibly in a special session being considered to address teacher insurance premiums.
Sabin said there appears to be a consensus among lawmakers of both major parties that reform is needed, and he suggested an agreement likely could be reached in time for a possible special session this fall.
However, in an interview Westerman downplayed the need for action on ethics reform so soon.
"I pleaded with the governor to have a special session on Medicaid , which was bigger than the school insurance and certainly more involved than ethics reform, and he wouldn’t do it," Westerman said.
During this year’s regular session, the House GOP leader strongly advocated putting off action on expanding health care coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act for a special session. The Legislature, in a bipartisan effort, adopted an alternative to adding thousands of the state’s working poor to the Medicaid program. The so-called private option that earmarks Medicaid dollars to subsidize private insurance for that population won federal approval Friday.
Westerman said he was surprised by Gov. Mike Beebe’s willingness to consider adding ethics reform to a special session if one is called. In response to reporters’ questions, Beebe said last week he had "talked with some folks about the possibility," but his top priority was trying to find a solution to rising teacher health insurance premiums.
Westerman said the ethics reforms being worked on by the Republican House Caucus are for the 2015 legislative session.
"I don’t know that it’s a good idea if we’re going to be needing to look at teacher insurance then put something like that into the mix," he said.
Recent disclosures have added fuel to ethics reform discussions that have gone on for years.
Former Democratic Sen. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro resigned in early August after the state Ethics Commission concluded that he converted thousands of dollars in funds from his unopposed 2012 re-election campaign to personal use. The commission fined the veteran lawmaker $8,000 publicly reprimanded him. A special prosecutor is investigating his campaign finances.
The Ethics Commission is currently investigating allegations of campaign finance violations against Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr.
The complaint by liberal blogger Matt Campbell alleges Darr improperly spent thousands of dollars of campaign money after his November 2010 election on purposes other than debt reduction, including hotel rooms, airline tickets, flowers, fuel, clothing, Razorback season tickets and meals at restaurants.
Darr has filed an ethics complaint against himself and has said he is working to bring his filings into compliance with state law. He dropped out of the 4th District congressional race and has not said whether he will seek re-election next year.
Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, said he has heard some talk about ethics reform possibly being added to a special session agenda, but he is not sure it will happen. If an agreement can be reached to get the issue on the agenda of a special session, Maloch said he would like to see two measures he filed during this year’s regular session get another chance.
One would have prohibited candidates from using campaign contributions to buy tickets to other candidates’ fundraisers. The other would have prohibited someone who is a majority owner of two or more corporations from giving multiple campaign contributions, one from each corporation, to a single candidate. Neither made it out of a Senate committee.
Both those proposals are also on the list of ethics reforms supported by the House Democratic Caucus.
Others would empower the Ethics Commission to proactively review campaign finance reports when filed; increase penalties for violations of ethics laws; and create a more transparent and navigable finance report data base that is accessible to the public.
Ethics reforms supported by the House Republican Caucus include mandatory electronic filing of campaign contribution and expenditure reports; reducing or eliminating the $100 reporting threshold for campaign expenses; prohibiting lawmakers from using campaign contributions to purchase tickets to a fundraiser for another candidate; and addressing surplus carryover funds and how they are handled after an election.