Arizona Eagletarian

Arizona Eagletarian

Friday, March 30, 2012

Arizona UPRISING -- Legislative Conflicts of Interest

Late in December 2009, reports began to surface about what would eventually become a major scandal involving the Fiesta Bowl and state lawmakers. In 2011, the... um, "confetti" hit the fan. Perhaps the most high profile legislative official to be caught up in the scandal, Russell Pearce, ended up -- for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he accepted substantial "gifts" from the Fiesta Bowl (as well as campaign contributions from Fiesta Bowl officials and employees) -- losing an historic recall election in November 2011.

The year 2011 also brought ALEC to the forefront of many people's awareness as a the most powerful and influential pro-business lobbying consortium in the nation.

Thanks to the research of Arizona State Professor Emeritus Robert Cialdini, we no longer need rely only on an intuitive sense -- that when a person (or group) "freely" gives away "scholarships" and other items of substantial value -- to know that there are strings attached.

As an aside, Arizona has had its share of scandals, notably the legislative bribery sting operation known as AZSCAM in the early 1990s.

ALEC (A Lawmaker for Every Corporation, aka American Legislative Exchange Council) has been honing its strategies and tactics since its inception in the 1970s to seduce and ensnare, as inconspicuously as possible state lawmakers, media and everyday citizens to advance its goals. From ALECs website:
For more than 35 years, ALEC has been the ideal means of creating and delivering public policy ideas aimed at protecting and expanding our free society. Thanks to ALEC’s membership, the duly elected leaders of their state legislatures, Jeffersonian principles advise and inform legislative action across the country. Literally hundreds of dedicated ALEC members have worked together to create, develop, introduce and guide to enactment many of the cutting-edge, conservative policies that have now become the law in the states. The strategic knowledge and training ALEC members have received over the years has been integral to these victories.
Since its founding, ALEC has amassed an unmatched record of achieving ground-breaking changes in public policy.   
ALECs terminology is rife with euphemisms intended to hide the effects of its public policy initiatives for the vast majority of Americans.

Ultimately, the point is that ALEC and other extreme special interest groups (like the Center for Arizona Policy, which aggressively fights to eliminate or hinder civil rights, especially for women and LGBT Americans) exhibit undue influence over public policy at the Arizona Capitol. Perhaps the most compelling way they co-opt the peoples' representatives is by schmoozing, wining and dining as well as providing copious amounts of cash for running re-election campaigns.

Given the high-profile nature of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, and that many GOP members of the Arizona Legislature had failed, last year, to disclose "scholarships" from ALEC (or huge amounts of travel and sporting event tickets provided by the Fiesta Bowl), one could reasonably expect the state legislature to try to do something to improve its tarnished image along these lines with legislation in the current legislative session.

But it just did not happen that way.

Sure, some tried. State Rep. Steve Farley introduced HB2665, known as the ALEC Accountability bill. Speaker Andy Tobin did not even allow Farley's bill to be first read or assigned to committees. Even one of the Republicans tried to get something done about the problem with lobbyist gifts. Rep. Steve Court introduced HB2761 which did not tighten language nearly as far as HB2665. Assigned to the House Judiciary committee, HB2761 languishes without being considered.

All of which brings me to the latest effort at transparency and accountability. Yesterday, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-LD16, Phoenix) proposed a change to House Rule 35 which defines conflicts of interest and spells out what lawmakers may and may not do with legislation in which they have a personal stake.

Gallego's proposal does not go after ALEC or CAP per se, but deals directly with the related issue of lawmakers introducing, promoting and voting on legislation to enrich themselves. There have been numerous examples through the (recent) years, most blatantly by Sen. Steve Yarbrough (R-Chandler) who   (according to his member page on azleg.gov):
Since 1998 he has been the Executive Director of the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization which has provided scholarships to thousands of Arizona students to attend the school of their parent’s choice. 
Yarbrough's "charity" receives money that would otherwise be collected by the state for general fund revenue by way of state income tax credits that people take for school choice. Yarbrough has introduced, promoted and voted on related legislation, including expanding the limit on how much of the money received by his organization is allowed to keep (instead of providing tuition payments for students) to pay its executive director.

School privatization has provided lucrative opportunity for skimming money for other (former) state lawmakers also, like Tom Boone. Under investigation for self-enrichment, in 2011, former House Majority Leader Boone resigned his seat on the Deer Valley School District Governing Board.

House Rule 35 currently reads:


PERSONAL FINANCIAL INTEREST
A. A member who anticipates taking an action in the discharge of his official duties in which he may have a personal financial interest shall:
1. Prepare a written statement describing the matter to be acted upon and the nature of the potential interest; and
2. Deliver a copy of the statement to the Speaker, the chairman of the Ethics Committee and the Chief Clerk. Such statement shall be retained by the Chief Clerk as a public record.
B. A member shall report a potential personal financial interest pursuant to subsection A as soon as the member is aware of such potential interest. If, however, such awareness occurs when the House is convened on the floor or during a meeting of a committee, subcommittee or caucus, a member shall report a potential personal financial interest as soon after the adjournment of that body as is practicable.
C. A member may abstain from taking any action in which he has a personal financial interest. Upon declining to participate in any legislative action on the floor, in committee or in subcommittee, the member shall state his decision and such decision shall be recorded in the Journal or minutes of that body. Prior to declining to vote in any legislative action on the floor, a member must first prepare a written statement describing the nature of the personal financial interest or the reason why the member is declining to vote and deliver the statement to the Office of the Chief Clerk. If the member fails to file the statement prior to the member’s declaration on the floor, the member shall be subject to Rule 14 E.
D. A member in doubt as to the propriety of any action proposed to be taken by him and involving a potential personal financial interest under this Rule may request the Ethics Committee to render an advisory opinion on the facts. The advisory opinion shall be issued not later than 5 days from the date of receipt of that request and be filed with the Speaker, the chairman of the Ethics Committee and the Chief Clerk. Such opinion shall be retained by the Chief Clerk as a public record.
E. For the purposes of this Rule:
1. “An action in the discharge of his official duties" means introduction, sponsorship, debate, amendment, passage, defeat, approval, consideration or any other official action on any bill, resolution, memorial, amendment, confirmation, nomination, appointment, report or any other matter pending or proposed in a committee, subcommittee, caucus or on the floor of the House.
2. A personal financial interest exists if it is reasonably foreseeable that an action in the discharge of his official duties will have a material financial benefit or detriment either directly or indirectly on the member, his spouse or any minor child of whom he has legal custody, except that no personal financial interest exists if the legislator or such member of his household is a member of a class of persons and it reasonably appears that a majority of the total membership of that class is to be affected by such action. [emphasis added]
 
Gallego's proposal changes the language of the last paragraph thus:

2. A personal financial interest exists if it is reasonably foreseeable that an action in the discharge of his official duties will have a material financial benefit or detriment either directly or indirectly on the member, his spouse or any minor child of whom he has legal custody, except that no personal financial interest exists if the legislator or such member of his household is a member of a class of persons and it reasonably appears that a majority of the total membership of that class is affected by such action CONSISTING OF AT LEAST 50 MEMBERS, THE LEGISLATOR'S INTEREST IS NO GREATER THAN THE INTERESTS OF THE OTHER MEMBERS OF THE CLASS AND THE LEGISLATOR'S INTEREST IS DE MINIMIS.

 [emphasis in bold added]

The House did NOT consider Gallego's proposal but did refer it to the Judiciary committee where, especially since Jud chair Eddie Farnsworth has openly expressed his disagreement with the proposal, it will not be heard.

Arizona voters CAN do something about this, even if not until August (primary elections) and November (general election).

The Center for Public Integrity recently published a report card on the risk of corruption in each of the 50 states. Arizona (state government) earned an overall "D+". The state legislature earned grades of "F" in lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement. The only bright spots on that report, Redistricting ("A") and Judicial Accountability ("B-") are notable in that the loudest controversy in 2011 dealt with the legislature trying to subvert independent redistricting AND during the 2012 regular session a plethora of bitter rhetoric claiming the "courts violated the constitution" on a number of issues.

So, the goofballs that run the legislature now, if they get their way, will ONLY worsen the corruption risk.

It IS time for an ArizonaUPRISING.

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