Arkansans have had good reason to be weary about the shenanigans of their public officials.
In 2013, they learned that a state senator in Arkansas used campaign funds as a personal bank account, spending $8,000 on a home sound system, and $1,000 in country club expenses. They also learned that the lieutenant governor used both campaign funds and the state credit card to buy gasoline, amusingly listing the tankings on campaign forms as “fundraisers.” That same year, the state treasurer accepted cash bribes stashed in a pie box. And in 2015, a circuit court judge admitted to bribery after issuing a ruling that saved millions of dollars for a major donor to political action committees that gave the judge campaign money.
These cases made for splashy headlines here – violations of the law so flagrant that all of these officeholders eventually resigned or were removed. But more systemic problems simmered, and in November 2014, voters passed a change to the state’s constitution meant to put some new distance between public officials and private interests. Amendment 94 banned corporate contributions to candidates and gifts by lobbyists to lawmakers, while doubling the “cooling off” period before lawmakers can become lobbyists.
“In the last 30 years of Arkansas political history, Amendment 94 is among the most significant steps forward for ethics reform,” said state Rep. Warwick Sabin, co-sponsor of the originating bill.
But loopholes, new issues, and old problems continued, often under the public’s radar. As a result, Arkansas earned a score of 61, or a grade of D-, placing it 32nd in the State Integrity Investigation, a national assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Arkansas scored 68 in 2012, the first time the project was carried out, but the two scores are not directly comparable due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology.