Citizen-led group pushes for ethics reform in Arkansas

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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.
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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.”

Maine Governor, House Majority Leader push for reform after "F" grade

Conservative Gov. Paul LePage and his liberal counterparts in the Maine state legislature disagree on many issues, but the two sides have found common ground: An ‘F’ on Maine’s report card is unacceptable. 

LePage, an outspoken Republican in his first term, is encouraging a piece of legislation that would expose state officials’ conflicts of interest and decrease the chances for legislators to line their own pockets with taxpayer money. Gov. LePage said this is the kind of reform that Maine needs to enact to improve the failing grade Maine recieved on its Corruption Risk Report Card.

On the legislative side, House Minority Leader Emily Cain, (D-Orono), said the report card raises substantive issues, and might inspire a bipartisan task force to review the findings and suggest changes going into the next legislative session.

The reform-minded responses are an encouraging sign for a state with nine 'F’s and two ’D’s out of the 14 categories under review in the State Integrity Investigation.

In the current session, LePage has already introduced LD 1806, a bill that would require public disclosure from state legislators, constitutional officers and executive branch members if the official or the official’s family member has an ownership or management-level position in a company that receives more than $10,000 from the state.

The proposed increase in transparency would set Maine on a path to an improved grade on its Corruption Risk Report Card, LePage told the Bangor Daily News:

“This is the direction we need to move in to improve Maine’s grade. It’s clear that many states struggle with this issue. However, it is an issue that I will continue to work on improving on behalf of the Maine taxpayer.”

Cain floated the idea of a task force to review the problems highlighted in Maine’s failing grade, saying the group would “focus on feedback from the public and experts.”

A spokeswoman for Cain said the House Minority Leader was taking the idea to other leaders in the legislature to gain approval, in the hopes that the group could make suggestions before the legislature reconvenes in 2013. The spokeswoman said the task force would not look into “any one specific point from the report, but potentially use the report as a jumping-off point.”

With the statements from LePage and Cain, Maine becomes the fifth state to use State Integrity Investigation findings to support reform proposals, joining DelawareMichiganOhio and South Carolina.

If you live in Maine and want to encourage your state legislators and Gov. LePage to enact reforms, click here to send the Maine Corruption Risk Report Card and a personalized message to your elected officials. Keep track of this and other movements toward more open, accountable state government onour Reform Efforts page.

State Integrity Raises Questions About Good Government

By Gary Childress

Global Integrity’s research on corruption laws with state by state ranking certainly did bring questions in my mind.  I do understand that the research did not attempt to locate corruption but only looked at the structure to protect against corruption. One would expect a correlation between good corruption prevention structure and sound management and fiscal results.  Quite the reverse appears to be the case.

Recently 24/7 Wall St. published a study of the best-run states.  Wyoming was number one, Nebraskanumber two and if my memory serves me correctly the Dakotas were near the top.  The states at or near the top of Global Integrity’s list were typically the worst run states.

The various municipal credit rating organizations to the most part rate the bottom of the Global Integrity list higher credit than the top.  In fact most of the states with severe credit risk are near the top of Global’s ranking.  Why is there not a correlation?

I am not challenging your research, quite the reverse.  The fact that it leaves a question proves its merit.  As stated above: Why is there not a correlation?  This could be the question of another study.  The answers might be helpful to all states. 

There are likely many things going on other than the legal structure.  What are they?

Gary Childress is a retired businessman who divides his time between Wyoming and Connecticut.


Is it a B? No, whatever Patrick Stewart may say, Massachusetts didn’t earn a B on the State Integrity #corruptionrisk report card. See what grade we did earn. (Story.)