Arkansas pretends to be a transparent state but we’re pretty crummy at it.
- Senator lies about per diem, highlighting pervasive abuse of power
- Despite a good ruling from Senate Ethics Committee, Arkansas has toothless ethics laws
- If we want an ethical Arkansas, we need policy that promotes true government integrity
- If we want an ethical Arkansas, we must elect people that believe in such policy
The issue of per diem—the daily allowance lawmakers receive in addition to their salary—is a public one. After all, it’s taxpayer dollars that afford legislators travel to and from Little Rock. Lawmakers who live further than fifty miles get $155 in per diem plus mileage to attend legislative sessions, committee meetings, and other business at the Capitol. Recently, two lawmakers violated senate ethics laws during Arkansas Boys State. They lied about showing up, defrauding the public during a beloved Arkansas tradition: teaching high schoolers civic leadership and integrity. The irony is not lost on us.
After a three day closed-door executive session, Senate Ethics Committee members determined Mark Johnson and Alan Clark violated ethics rules. You can read about their unanimous decision here, and we expect a full report from the committee within the next twenty days. What sparked a lot of discussion, however, was “Why now?” Anecdotally, we’ve seen lawmakers from both parties skirt per diem rules. Many legislators sign in to committee meetings, attending only briefly before leaving and collecting per diem nonetheless. Perhaps what angered Senate leadership was the egregiousness of the per diem abuse at a function designed to shepherd the next generation of lawmakers. Or maybe colleagues just really dislike Senators Alan Clark and Mark Johnson.
Bad Report Card
We may not know why the whistle was blown, but the per diem shenanigans are part of an #arleg theme: we are a horribly unethical state that pretends it isn’t. The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan organization that investigates state integrity systems, gives Arkansas a D- grade. Yikes. The ranking’s criteria include categories like legislative accountability, lobby disclosure, and political financing, each of which Arkansas scores a big fat F on. The Center rated Arkansas in 2015, and per diem as much of an integrity factor then as it is now. “During legislative sessions, lawmakers sometimes claimed per diems on days when the legislature was not actually in session,” the Center wrote. Legislators claimed per diem “simply for attending meetings during the interim period between sessions, including for meetings of committees of which they were not members.”
Per diem isn’t the only thing we suck at. In addition to abusing public funds, the legislature has a vigorous history of bad financial behavior, constituent mistreatment, shadow meetings, oversized lobby influence, nepotism, abusing power, fraud, and more. It’s so bad that we have a whole project dedicated to keeping an eye on elected leaders.
How you can help Arkansas prioritize ethics
We applaud the Senate Ethics Committee for taking seriously the allegations of colleagues abusing the per diem system. Holding their members to account is one important way Arkansas can work on its abysmal integrity score. But for our state to really make ethics progress, we must pass and uphold systems that promote ethical governing, transparency, and accountability. Constituents have power to press politicians on ethics standards. Here are some things you can do:
• Report bad behavior. if you know of illegal or unethical behavior, report it. For AR People and On AR Watch provide tangible steps for constituents to take action, but we can’t catch everything. Have a tip? Message us.
• Demand lawmakers take up legislation that promotes transparency and accountability. After the per diem debacle, legislators should consider removing per diem for non-committee members and/or adjusting rates to more accurately reflect accessibility to the Capitol. They could also propose a better system to account for per diem and reimbursement claims.
•Support candidates that are for cleaning up our state government. Ask candidates about their stance on corruption, the influence of big lobby, and abuse of power. Stop voting for candidates that have histories of financial misbehavior and ties to special interest. Ultimate accountability lies with the voter at the ballot box. It’s time we vote the shady lawmakers out.