Arkansas’ Derelict Legislature

by Mark Moore

We live in times where the legislative branch of government is held in low esteem.   The judicial branch runs over it, the executive branch runs over it.   Heck, even the bureaucrats of the executive branch run over it- what law is passed does not seem to matter so much as how the regulators regulate what has passed. In our state, they are increasingly losing power to what I call “fiefdom government.” Wow-this article could be a bit of a downer if you don’t see that there is a solution to the problem, so I will just put that here so you might come back to it later.

If the legislative branch has real any function left at all, it is to exercise the “power of the purse strings”.  Yet amazingly, both Congress and our state legislature seem anxious to pass the buck and turn over their last remaining shreds of real power over to the executive.  That way you see, they don’t have to make any tough calls.   At that point, they will exist only to preen and bloviate about how bad various things are even after they have given away all of their power to do something about any of those things.  The two-party system has undermined the intent of the Founding Fathers with respect to the function of the legislature.

The elites who run both D.C.-based political clubs called “parties” consider the legislature to be a speed bump in their accelerating efforts to send your children’s money to the special interests which fund them both.  They want to legislature to be irrelevant, and so they are increasingly arranging things so that it is irrelevant.  Even the legislators themselves want to shift all the heat for tough decisions elsewhere so that the money skids to their party’s special interests stays well-greased while they tell the voters that it is out of their hands.  And it is out of their hands- because they passed rules saying so.

Remember when voters objected to Congress raising the debt ceiling?  Every member of the Arkansas federal delegation voted for it, and they all took heat for it.  So what they and the rest of Congress did was to select a “super committee” made of a few members of each party from safe seats and say that this “super committee” would make the decision for all of them.  That way, if you object to raising the debt ceiling, you have no one to vote against.  It was an outrageous dereliction of their duty to exercise the power of the purse strings, but it fooled voters for a while unto believing there was “nothing they could do” to stop the debt ceiling from going up.

More recently, for the first time in the history of our Republic, Congress gave the Executive Branch unilateral power to increase the debt ceiling an unlimited amount.  In theory Congress could come back and vote against the increase after the fact, but under the new rules the President could just veto their disapproval and they would have to get enough votes to over-ride a veto to stop the increase.   For the first 236 years of our Republic a simple majority of Congress was needed to approve any increase in the debt ceiling.  Now a super-majority is required to stop an increase which the Executive can initiate on his own.

The problem of ‘the irrelevant legislature’, irrelevant by their own choice, is not limited to the federal government.  It is an artifact of the complete capture and corruption of the two-party system which has destroyed the finances, economy, and freedom of this nation.  A strong legislative branch, the People’s Branch, would be a serious impediment to the elite’s looting of America, thus those who run both parties on behalf of the elites want the legislature stripped of all real authority, and most of the puppets they arrange to send to Congress are all too-happy to comply.   Now someone else makes all the tough calls and they can just attend fund-raisers and be feted by lobbyists.

The same thing is going on in Arkansas, even though it is not as corrupt and advanced as the federal legislature is in abdicating their responsibilities.  After Gov. Mike Beebe basically bribed Senator Jane English to change her vote on the so-called “Private Option” by shifting $28 million dollars in state spending to her preferences without specific legislative approval, I started asking questions.  How could he do that?  Doesn’t the whole legislature have to approve a spending change that large?  Well, I got some answers recently, and those answers reveal the same underlying problem I demonstrated existed on the federal level- the legislature chooses to basically abandons a large part of its duty to exercise the power of the purse strings over to the executive.  In this case it is in order that the executive might have plenty of money available to give them pork.

As an aside, some might object to my referring to the $28 million dollar in spending as a “bribe” because as far was we know English is not personally benefitting from the money- government is just doing something the way she wants it done.  Some would argue that “back room deals” like this have always been cut.  That’s right, they have been, but its always been wrong.  That’s why previously they were done in “the back room.”  Beebe and English have taken this corrupt practice and done it in open daylight right on the front porch.

Using public money to change an unrelated government program for your vote is less efficient for the tax payer than a bribe to an individual!  When lobbyists tried to bribe Rep. Womack of Arkadelphia with campaign contributions for changing his vote on the Private Option, the going rate was $30,000, and no serious opposition.   One could speculate that giving this amount of money directly to legislator’s campaign coffers was enough to do the job since eight house members who had been voting against the “Private Option” for at least a month flipped within 20 hours at the same time Womack reported the bribe attempt.

You see, when you give the bribe directly to an account with the legislator’s name on it, it apparently takes about $30,000 to flip their vote.   When you only say you will spend some tax money they way they want on some project that does not benefit them directly, it takes $28 million in taxpayer spending. At least that was the price tag in this instance.   Not only is the practice morally reprehensible, its a terribly inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.   Maybe Beebe should have offered to pay English directly for her vote and saved the taxpayers $27 million.

Anyone who cares about what the standard should be to honestly negotiate bills, see this article about The Martin Standard.

But back to the issue of how Mike Beebe could have even legally done such a thing.   The devil is in the details of our state’s “Revenue Stabilization Act.”   The act is hailed by the mis-information media as a key to our state maintaining a balanced budget.  Nope, the folks who wrote our state Constitution 150 years ago get the credit for that.   The Revenue Stabilization Act as currently used simply serves to insure that the Executive Branch will have plenty of funds available to bribe legislators with back room (or now front porch in our crass times) deals of the sort arranged with English.

The way it is supposed to work is that essential funding is placed in “A” category spending. They appropriate maybe all but $100 million in expected revenue in this category.  Then there is supposed to be things that are in “B” category which only get funded if all of “A” category spending is funded.   There is also a “C” category which is made of things that only get funded if all of “A” is funded and all of “B” is funded, but as you will see this rarely gets used……

The legislature is in the habit of saying “yes” to almost any appropriation bill so long as it is in “B” category.  This is on the assumption that it will never be funded unless there is a surplus.  While that’s true, such thinking also insures that all surpluses will be spent.  The legislature does not just appropriate the extra $100 million dollars in revenue they are expecting into “B” funds, they actually appropriate double, triple or even quadruple what the state is expected to get in revenues.   There is no restraint because they figure the money will never be spent, so why not just say “yes”?

Well, one good reason is that passing all those broadly worded bills funding every department under the sun allows the Governor to come in and unilaterally decide where all excess revenues will be spent.  That is, every penny which come in over the limit of “A” category appropriations is sent to “B” category appropriations, and since everything is absurdly over-appropriated in “B” category the Governor essentially gets to pick which of those “B” category items he wishes to fund.   They also tend to be very broadly worded.    The effect in this state is to give the Governor a second budget which is no longer subject to legislative approval.  The legislators get a certain amount of that back in pork, but that is unhealthy too, both for the taxpayers and for checks and balances between the branches.

The proper thing to do is for the legislature to really do their job and make the tough calls.  They need to fund category “A” like they are doing it now, only maybe shave the margin a little closer.  For “B” category, instead of passing appropriations that are triple the amount of the whole budget, they should fund to maybe 105% of expected revenues.  If more money than that comes in, it should sit as savings so that the voters can be in on the conversation about what ought to be done with it. They should use it to really prioritize, to make the calls about funding that they were sent there to make.  This way, “B” category can be used the way it was intended to- to fund things that the legislature, the whole legislature not just the few members in the back room with the Governor, decide what should be funded if money is available.

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