Let’s start with an admission that no words are more boring in politics than "campaign finance reform."
That’s what this column is about. But it’s also about a small movement, an unlikely alliance, and an issue that may eventually be decided by Arkansas voters.
The movement calls itself Regnat Populus, after the state motto, which is Latin for "The People Rule." It was founded by Paul Spencer, a government teacher at Little Rock Catholic High who started out being involved in the Occupy Little Rock movement and then decided to channel his energies in another direction. Its database includes a couple of hundred Occupy and non-Occupy types.
Spencer and his group wrote and tried to get on the ballot the Campaign Finance and Lobbying Act of 2012, which included three provisions:
– A ban on all corporate and union contributions for state candidates, as is done on the federal level.
– Increasing the waiting time for legislators becoming lobbyists to two years after they leave office. It now is one.
– Prohibiting legislators from accepting any gift whatsoever from lobbyists or persons employing lobbyists.
Getting the issue on the ballot required collecting 62,507 signatures, which Spencer and his fellow volunteers began with little chance of success. Then, a group of establishment types with money and influence decided they liked what Regnat Populus was doing and formed another group called Better Ethics Now to support it. It included folks like Brent Bumpers, son of Sen. Dale Bumpers, and Jim Keet, who ran as a Republican against Gov. Beebe in 2010.
So to sum it up: the anti-establishment Occupy Little Rock led to the creation of the more moderate Regnat Populus, which in turn was supported by a group of connected, very establishment state leaders. Welcome to Arkansas.
Even with that backing, Regnat Populus ran out of time before it collected enough signatures. But it has already submitted to the attorney general the Campaign Finance and Lobbying Act of 2014, which includes the same provisions plus a ban on gifts to constitutional officers, such as the governor. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who also no longer could accept such gifts, is expected to give his opinion on the ballot title by Oct. 22. With his blessing, Regnat Populus plans to collect signatures at polling places this Election Day.
David Couch, an attorney who serves as the treasurer of Better Ethics Now, told me that group – the one with money and influence – has not had a chance to meet and decide if it will support the 2014 effort. It still has $40,000 in the bank.
This is October 2012. Why start working so soon for an election that will be in November 2014?
Spencer and Couch, who also is co-chairing Regnat Populus, said they are hoping to collect as many signatures as soon as possible using volunteers. Starting now gives them two years of elections, Razorback football games, festivals, and Arkansas State Fairs.
They also hope to keep the issue in the forefront, for a lot of reasons. They say the country’s shadowy campaign finance culture makes elected officials less responsive to the people and less able to solve problems. They want candidates to discuss that culture this election season. And best-case scenario: They’re hoping legislators pass the act themselves during next year’s legislative session before the voters have a chance to pass it for them.
Would legislators do that? Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, is one of the idea’s opponents. He told me corporations and unions have a right to support their candidates. Passage of the act would hurt small businesses who, unlike big corporations, wouldn’t have the resources to work around the new system.
The other provisions aren’t necessary or go too far, he said. Sometimes a constituent such as his local college will host a get-together for legislators with, yes, free food. These meetings, he said, can be helpful and should not be seen as a sinister, undemocratic act. He also believes a one-year ban on legislators lobbying is sufficient to prevent them from going straight from lawmaking to law influencing.
Those are the two sides, and they both make legitimate arguments. It may soon be on the ballot. If so, may the people rule.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org