Bill would let foreigners foot bill for some lawmaker travel

Foreign travel for state lawmakers and other state elected officials that's paid for or arranged by a foreign nation employing a lobbyist would be allowed under ethics legislation filed by House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia.

Gillam said no particular trip that a foreign government wanted to finance led him to introduce House Bill 1401 on Monday, although some lawmakers have asked whether nations, such as China, Israel or the United Kingdom, should be allowed to pay for lawmakers to visit their countries to expand Arkansas' relationships.

"If I understood them correctly, there was an opportunity that may have come about [from] the government of China bringing a delegation over to look at further business interests and relationships that could come. Under Amendment 94, that couldn't have happened," he said Tuesday in an interview.

Under Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, lawmakers are barred from having lobbyists cover their expenses unless the money is from a regional or national organization to attend a conference, Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan said last year.

Voters approved Amendment 94 in November 2014. It bars lobbyists from providing certain gifts to lawmakers, including paying for their meals in one-on-one meetings. In 2015, lawmakers reported accepting what they described as educational trips, financed by nonprofit groups, to China, Israel and France.

Amendment 94 has meant, for example, that the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. no longer cover expenses for lawmakers to travel to Wyoming to tour a coal mine or for a handful of lawmakers to go to Washington, D.C., to attend an annual energy conference, and Microsoft Corp. no longer occasionally pays for lawmakers to visit its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., lobbyists said.

HB1401 also would allow lobbyists to pay for "transportation for tours or briefings" to educate state elected officials.

Asked if his bill would allow Arkansas Electric Cooperatives to pay for a coal-mine tour, Gillam said, "I don't think it does."

He said his intent is to allow lobbyists to pay for a van for lawmakers who needed to travel, for example, a mile from their meeting place to a site such as the Big River Steel plant near Osceola.

"I don't see that as being still a big trip or anything like that," Gillam said.

Among other things, the legislation also would reduce from 30 days to 10 days the "cure period" for elected officials to fix unintentional errors on campaign-finance reports and annual personal financial disclosure statements, and also return prohibited gifts unintentionally accepted from lobbyists.

Gillam said he believes that it was initially important to have a 30-day "cure period," after the 2015 Legislature enacted Act 1280 to implement Amendment 94, because "there was a lot of time where there was a lot of gray area from the Ethics Commission's standpoint, so we didn't want any ... political gotcha games happening with ethics complaints.

"I think where we are at now from a functional standpoint is if somebody is notified about a particular issue or something that may have come up, I think 10 business days is functionally appropriate now and plenty adequate for anybody who is in that situation to ... clear up some misunderstandings or whatever it is that occurred," he said.

Gillam said he could ask the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee to consider HB1401 as early as this morning.

The bill requires a two-thirds vote in the 100-member House of Representatives and 35-member Senate for approval because it would change Amendment 94 to the state constitution.

A two-thirds vote is 67 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate.

A Section on 02/01/2017