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Democrats push to add ethics bills to state session

by Spencer Willems | March 3, 2016 at 3:44 a.m. | Updated March 3, 2016 at 3:44 a.m.
Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, presents a bill to a meeting of the House State Agencies Committee at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, March 25, 2015.

Arkansas Democrats have proposed ethics-related bills to include in a special legislative session, including one that would require so-called dark money groups to register and disclose the source of their funding.

On Wednesday, Senate and House Democrats asked Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson to consider putting some ethics proposals on the agenda for the April 6 special session, which will be held to make changes to the state's private-option program. That program uses federal funds to purchase private health insurance for some low-income Arkansans.

Included in the Democrats' bundle of suggested ethics-law changes is a measure that would give voters some insight into the source of funds of out-of-state groups like the one that spent more than $600,000 in negative ads in a state Supreme Court chief justice race.

House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said Democrats have been kicking the ideas around for a while and reasoned that because lawmakers will be called back into session, it would be smart to tighten election and ethics-related laws before November's general election.

"It's more illustrative to the point that Arkansans are upset about this stuff," Gray said. "Here's a bipartisan issue that we can ask the governor to address. It shouldn't be political. It's more around the lines of Arkansans are fed up with money controlling politics."

On Wednesday night, Hutchinson's office issued a statement saying he would review the Democrats' proposals.

"No decision is going to be made on the specific items for the fiscal session until much closer to the session," the statement said.

The "dark money" bill would be sponsored by Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, who was unsuccessful in passing an identical version of the bill last year. It would require groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network to register with the secretary of state's office if it plans to run election-related communications. The bill also would require the group to disclose its financial backers.

Other proposals include redefining the ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials to include personal loans, and adopting language that would apply the state's criminal abuse of public trust law to those waiting to take office.

Gray said Democrats also want to do away with a "loophole" for elected officials who failed to disclose campaign contributions or other financial interests. Lawmakers now have 30 days to correct any oversight once it is discovered. The proposal would strike the "cure period" from being used as an affirmative defense of a violation.

Gray said some might object to taking on potentially contentious ethics legislation in the special session. But he said he thinks there is support for the measures, especially Tucker's "dark money" legislation, because of the Supreme Court races. Plus, he said, it's the right thing to do.

"These are kind of weighty. Will it distract? Well, we can look and say, 'We'll just kick this down the road [and] deal with it when we have more time,'" Gray said. "But if we're going to be in session and dealing with Arkansas Works or the private option. ... I think Arkansans would expect us to take every opportunity to address some ethical issues, as well."

Metro on 03/03/2016

Print Headline: Democrats push to add ethics bills to state session


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