Every year Paul Spencer teaches the U.S. Constitution to the students in his government and politics class at Catholic High School For Boys in Little Rock, Arkansas. Over the last few years, Spencer found himself increasingly upset as he recited the words and recounted the intent of America’s founders.
“I noticed myself getting a little more angry every consecutive year about how things are in government, as opposed to how they are in the textbook,” Spencer said.
Now, Spencer and a group of motivated Arkansas citizens are doing what they can to change the way government operates in their state. Spencer is the leader of Regnat Populus 2012, the organization behind a grassroots movement to pass new ethics laws in Arkansas through a citizen-led ballot initiative. If Spencer’s group obtains the required number of signatures, the people of Arkansas will have the chance to push back against big money in government, double the time a lawmaker has to wait before becoming a lobbyist, and prohibit gift-giving from lobbyists to lawmakers.
Regnat Populus 2012 takes its name from the Latin for phrase “The people rule,” an expression that serves as Arkansas’ state motto, and which Paul Spencer and his partners hope to prove is still true.
Spencer’s leadership in the movement grew out of his brief involvement with Occupy Little Rock, where he Spencer and his wife encountered like-minded academics, organizers, and activists, including Marie Mainard O’Connell, a stay-at-home mom and Presbyterian youth minister.
“I’m very excited about [the ballot initiative],” O’Connell said. “I don’t know of any other occupy groups that have led to something quite like this.”
The group’s volunteer legal team has revived and updated a past version of an ethics reform initiative. The new proposal has three objectives:
- Prohibit direct corporate and union contributions to state political campaigns.
- Increase the ‘cooling-off’ period for former legislators to become lobbyists from 1 year to 2 years.
- Ban all gifts from lobbyists to legislators.
Arkansas Senate chamber
O’Connell has already heard some complaining about the proposal from her acquaintances in state government.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “most of their arguments are along the lines of, ‘We’ve gotten used to a broken system.’”
Spencer said the ethics reform effort has picked up attention and support thanks to the release of the State Integrity Investigation, whichgave Arkansas an overall grade of D+ on its Corruption Risk Report Card.
“[The Arkansas grade] motivated a lot of the local media to kind of, throw their hands up and say, ‘This is what we’ve been saying all along, and there has to be something we can do with it’” Spencer said.
On April 4 Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel approved the “The Campaign Finance and Lobbying Act of 2012” initiative, opening the door for the group to begin collecting signatures. Arkansas law requires the support of 8 percent of the total vote in the most recent gubernatorial election before an initiative appears on the ballot, which means Regnat Populus 2012 has to collect 62,507 signatures before the July 1 deadline.
Spencer and O’Connell are confident that the people of Arkansas are on their side, particularly after a recent statewide poll found 69 percent of respondents supported the initiative; only 18 percent were opposed, and 13 percent were undecided. Most encouraging were high polling numbers in the ideologically conservative northwest corner of the state, which Spencer takes as evidence that ethics reform has bipartisan support.
Spencer was thrilled with those results, but says there’s a lot to be done: The group still needs volunteer canvassers across the state, and needs to raise money to fund travel and organization expenses.
The hard work of door-to-door, person-to-person signature gathering will soon be underway, pitting the group in a race against the calendar. At the moment, Regnat Populus 2012 is trying to reach out to any and all supporters of better, more accountable government for the state of Arkansas.
“We’re looking for people of goodwill,” Spencer said. “And that’s the only criteria that you actually have to have. We believe strongly that the people, if given the option to act in a nonpartisan, non-divisive way, can really make some changes.”