The endless summer vacation?

Posted: Aug 29, 2004 12:00 AM
As the summer ends, here's hoping you and your family were able to find the time and money to take a vacation and get away from it all. Yet, forgive the good citizens of Arkansas if they don't express similar sentiments for their state legislators, who happen to be vacationing all across the country.

And sending the bills to taxpayers back home.

Legislators in Arkansas, as in every other state, regularly moan about finding enough money for essential government services. But, one might wonder as to their definition of "essential." Last year, Arkansas legislators miraculously found the dough to reward themselves with a nice, fat pay-raise.

This year, legislators discovered an innovative method to maintain services and accomplish ever more of their brilliant schemes. They passed the largest tax increase in state history. (Now, why didn't we think of that?)

After the hard work of legislative sessions filled with audacious pay-raises and muscular tax increases, haven't these public servants earned a little rest and relaxation?

Well, lately, they have certainly been getting their share. In July, 38 Arkansas legislators attended a National Conference of State Legislatures convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. Such conferences are part vacation and part education. However, I'm not sure most citizens consider the occasion of legislators and lobbyists kibitzing in fancy resorts to be the optimum sort of learning environment for their representatives. Exactly what is being taught, and what lessons learned?

In 2002, the National Conference of State Legislatures convention featured a lavish tribute to Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, in honor of his role in leading Idaho legislators to repeal unilaterally their state's voter-enacted term limits law. As one NCSL muckety-muck put it: "Speaker Newcomb demonstrated extraordinary political courage and a deep commitment to the institution of the state legislature by taking on the unpopular challenge of repealing term limits."

They even gave the courageously unrepresentative Newcomb a special award ? The William M. Bulger Excellence in State Legislative Leadership Award. It's worth noting that the award's namesake is the former Massachusetts senate president who in 1992 refused to abide by the state constitution, which explicitly required legislators to vote on a term limits petition from citizens. Yet, Bulger is better known for taking the Fifth Amendment before a congressional committee when asked if he knew the whereabouts of his brother, Whitey, wanted on murder charges.

With the NCSL bent on lionizing arrogance, lawlessness, and disdain for voters, perhaps the less legislators learn at their conventions, and the more they merely vacation, the better.

Summer vacation for Arkansas legislators continues. Now, 57 legislators are packing their bags for two conferences in Alaska ? one hosted by The Council of State Governments and another by The Energy Council. All junkets combined amount to taxpayer-paid vacations for well over half of the entire legislature, at a cost of about a quarter of a million dollars.

Of course, the politicians argue that their travels are well worth the cost because they learn about public policy and, thus, become better public servants. But while these supposed benefits to taxpayers are dubious at best, this rationale falls apart completely when one considers that many of those tripping on the taxpayers' tab are term-limited legislators. Yes, 15 term-limited legislators traveled to Utah and 24 more are headed to Alaska. By law, these legislators cannot return to the Legislature next session to use their vast, newly acquired knowledge. Why should Arkansans "invest" in increasing the knowledge of soon-to-be former servants?

Well, never say legislators aren't inventive. Several term-limited politicians justify their attendance saying that they might run for office again or be involved in state government in one way or another. Wait a second . . . doesn't that describe every single citizen of the state? We're all equal, of course, but politicians think they're just a little more equal than the rest of us.

House Speaker Herschel Cleveland is one term-limited legislator taking multiple vacations, thanks to the taxpayers. "I am working on this alternative fuels stuff," Cleveland points out in defense of his plans to attend The Energy Council event. "If the thing in the Middle East blows up and we don't have the fuel we need, we're going to be in trouble." Makes you rest a little easier to know this state legislator is on the job, eh?

Speaker Cleveland also notes that he did not attend conferences in Hawaii and Italy. What impeccable restraint!

Another term-limited junketeer is Rep. Larry Prater. "I want to find exactly from those [Alaska] folks what our oil reserves are," the great solon explained. Apparently, Phone Use 101 had not been workshopped at a previous conference; a phone call would have been a tad cheaper than a junket.

And if Arkansans are frustrated with their legislators' endless summer of excellent adventures, they can step up to full-blown revolutionary zeal by taking a look at yet another legislative trick, Amendment 1 on the November ballot. The measure's misleading ballot title ? written, as readers of my Common Sense e-letter would guess, by the legislators themselves ? says it will "establish term limits." But, Arkansans already have term limits. The true impact of the Legislature's amendment is to water down the state's current term limits law so that legislators can stay in office much longer ? twice as long in the House and 50 percent longer in the Senate.

Clearly, the legislators need more time to "see the world."