HB1187 is now Act 312 after being signed into law by Governor Beebe today. The new law prohibits the use of public funds by a public employee, school board, city, county, or any public entity to influence the outcome of ballot measure elections. (We’ve previously analyzed it here.)
Rep. Nate Bell was the lead sponsor of the bill: in his testimony before the Senate State Agencies Committee last week, he said something I found very troubling: According to Bell, although current law required any expenditure of public funds on ballot measure elections to be reported to the Arkansas Ethics Commission, only two such reportings have ever occurred.
One of the two times that public expenditures on ballot measure issues were actually reported was in my home community of White County — but the reports were only filed after the county judge was formally reprimanded by the Ethics Commission, and the commission only ruled after I compiled evidence and filed a complaint. In White County Judge Mike Lincoln’s case, the evidence was overwhelming: he had signed a contract with a local businessman to employ him to help promote a tax hike — with taxpayer dollars. The contract also explicitly stated that promotional materials for the tax campaign would be furnished by the judge’s office. I spent weeks raising awareness about the expenditures on social media, my blog, and radio. The judge repeatedly claimed that I was a liar and that no public funds were being spent. Finally — after the election, of course — the commission ruled that public funds in excess of $500 were being spent in favor of the ballot measure and Lincoln should have disclosed the amounts through financial reporting. He was issued a public letter of caution by the commission and advised not to partake in these activities again. And despite his repeated proclamations of innocence (that continue to this day), Lincoln actually signed a letter that acknowledged he broke the law. Unfortunately, White County taxpayers will never know how much of their money was spent trying to sell them a tax increase — a tax increase that was rejected by a margin of 14%, a landslide in a special election — which added weight to the argument that public money should not have been spent because clearly a majority of taxpayers did not support the measure.
Hopefully the nasty days of taxpayer-sponsored tax campaigns are behind us. Thanks to the tireless work of Rep. Bell and others to reform government in Arkansas, taxpayers like me don’t have to waste (as much) time trying to keep their elected officials from using their money against them. Now, instead of being re-elected, Judge Lincoln would have to face removal from office and up to a year in jail.
It is to be noted: this law will not end these practices. I’m yet to see a law that ended all of the undesirable activity it targets, so taxpayers should remain vigilant and keep seeking answers on spending in ballot measure campaigns. However, I hope this law will make such actions more difficult and give taxpayers more significant recourse against those who misuse their money. This accomplishment should not be understated: this is a significant, substantive step towards more accountable government in Arkansas. Taxpayers should be grateful.