Legislative Expense Wars
Many of you know about Conservative Arkansas' recent efforts to call attention to what, in their view, is an abuse of legislator's expense accounts. I have not weighed in on the issue, mostly because life is crazy for me right now, but also because of the complexity of the issue. I'd like to do so now, including proposing a possible outcome that will satisfy all parties that are reasonable.
The bottom line is that the Arkansas Constitution limits legislative pay, but allows them to set a budget for reasonable office expenses. Legislators routinely hire their spouses or create their own companies to run their office for them, and simply turn in one "receipt" each month- the bill from the often in-house service which runs their offices for them.
Conservative Arkansas says that they should be reimbursed for expenses for which they show a receipt, but not contract out their whole operation to their own business or to a spouse. The language in Amendment 70 is pretty clear that legislative expenses are not to be used as an extra source of income to the legislator.
The first thing I want to say about this is that I think Amendment 70 should be repealed. I know its popular to complain that politicians make too much money, but at times the average citizen forgets the truth of Scripture, and on such occasions the average citizen is in error. It is written "the laborer is worthy of his hire." $15,000 is far too little to pay to the people who make the laws of your state. It's crazy to expect quality people to work for that, even if they care.
If you owned a business with a five billion dollar annual budget, would you trust people you could hire for $15,000 a year to run it? I wouldn't. It's asinine. Fortunately we have better people than that, but only because they wind up getting more than that- and the way they get it is exploiting loopholes of the type currently stirring up controversy.
While some pass off the job as "part time", the truth is the job is a 2nd full time job for many of these folks. It's true its a job with limited official duties, but in order to stay in the job you have to do a lot more than the official duties. You can't hold down most full time jobs while doing a good job as a state legislator. There is no way I could afford to be a state legislator if I stuck to the official salary, and no way I would want the job if I had to resort to what I felt was dishonest means to get more than the official salary. It's a system that discourages the most competent and most fastidiously honest from even applying. Many good and honest men of course do apply anyway, it's just a shame they have to be faced with this ethical dilemma right from the start.
I frankly feel that the practice of a legislator starting an LLC which has a primary function of "managing" the legislator's office, and whose profits go right back into the legislator's pockets, is a violation of Amendment 70. I don't share the same view about a legislator who hires his/her spouse to run their office. A supportive wife is very helpful to a good honest politician. The wives of public officials do a lot of work for free. I don't have a problem with it if in this instance they actually get paid for the work they do. Complaints about nepotism aside, most of the time no one in the world would do a better job for a legislator than their wife.
Between these two cases is the case of a legislator who already owns a business with some other primary purpose and simply uses the staff and supplies from that office to also conduct their legislative work. Again, that is a very efficient way to conduct business, and there is no sense, cost or otherwise, in having a completely new office or staff person. And that corporation, which has a primary purpose other than that of being a legislative office, has a right to make a profit on this side business, just as it does its primary business. I think the key is that there must be a primary business (and source of revenue) that is not related to the legislative office.
I am a person who gets paid a flat amount for expenses. If I choose to live large, it costs me money. If I choose to live frugally, I get to keep some of it. It's all legal for me, and I would be a hypocrite if I came down hard on the legislators for doing the same thing. Still, the language of Amendment 70 is very clear. I think the problem is the amendment as much or more than the practice, but as of now, it's the law.
We need a new amendment that doubles legislative pay and closes the loophole of office expenses going to an LLC which is owned by the legislator and has a primary function of running the office. Let's pay good people something closer to what they are worth, and we won't have to worry about the job attracting scoundrels who use questionable means to get more than the agreed on amount out of us.