NWA EDITORIAL: Total recall

Corruption makes case for ability to call lawmakers home

If a recall happens in Arkansas, it's more likely to involve meat, canned foods or products on a store shelf than a lawmaker at the state Capitol.

Voters having a beef with their elected state leaders typically have one option: Wait until the next election.

What’s the point?

Recent political corruption has set the stage for considering proposals such as recall elections.

Will those options change in the near future?

Some of our state lawmakers have done everything they can to make recall elections for the House of Representatives and Senate a possibility. No, not through legislation. Rather, they've helped create an environment in which recall might prove attractive to voters. We're talking, of course, about public corruption.

Corruption in Arkansas government is not new, but a collection of recent convictions, guilty pleas and indictments over misuse of taxpayer dollars, bribery and kickbacks and abuses of the public trust have rightly made Arkansans skeptical about their lawmakers. The prosecution by U.S. attorneys and ongoing investigations by state and federal authorities provide fuel for the suggestion that the culture of the state Capitol needs to change. Some people sent to Little Rock to serve apparently need some kind of reminder there is a price to be paid for bad behaviors.

That's led to some ideas, such as ethics reforms, now that some members have been caught and convicted. More recently, some lawmakers and candidates have promoted the idea of barring convicted lawmakers from retaining any state pension earned as a result of their public positions. Grant Hodges, a lawmaker from Rogers, has also said he supports creation of a recall provision for state lawmakers.

That's a great idea, but it also depends entirely on implementation.

Recall elections aren't unheard of in Arkansas: In 2009, for example, the General Assembly passed Act 362 that allows for recall elections for elected officials with four-year terms in a mayor-council form of government. Just a couple of years ago, voters in the small towns of Earle, Humphrey and Hartford successfully recalled their mayors.

Recalls are not an option in Arkansas when it comes to state legislators. It can be extremely frustrating to have someone in office who has behaved in ways that offend the voters who put him there to begin with. It should be a rare occurrence, but it's conceivable that voters would have good reason to unseat a lawmaker before the end of a term when a new election happens.

Lawmakers who are paying attention to Arkansans' concerns about corruption need to be thinking about how to respond. Recall elections are a potentially valuable tool to empower voters to respond when a lawmaker breaks bad.

Accountability is needed. But any proposal to create recall elections also must take into account possible abuses. We don't need an instant replay system that allows losing candidates or parties to bring down the winner over differences of policy. That's what the voters decide every two or four years when terms run their normal course.

So what might trigger a possible recall? Commission of a crime seems to be a good start, but what about failure to show up? Incompetence? Unethical practices?

If there's a way to preserve the recall as a truly grass-roots effort rather than a process easily manipulated by monied special interests, Arkansas could sure use it.

The question becomes one of balance: How does one make lawmakers subject to recall without impinging on the independence of the individual legislator? After all, lawmakers need the breathing room to do their jobs without the constant threat of some offended party rallying a recall vote.

A recall election needs to be possible only in a limited set of circumstances and never over policy disagreements. For example, we have no doubt that some constituents of Rep. Charlie Collins in Fayetteville would have proposed recall over his dogged pursuit to permit concealed guns on college campuses in the face of strong opposition from the so-called university community. As a lawmaker, Collins has every right to pursue such a policy even if his constituents disagree.

Arkansas must guard against creating a recall election process that can be weaponized for political purposes. But voters also don't need to be trapped with lawmakers who violate their trust or the law. The challenge will be to design a recall feature that doesn't loom like Damocles' sword over lawmakers who are doing their jobs earnestly.

The bar for recalling a lawmaker should be high. To protect an officeholder? Not at all. Rather, it's to protect the expression of the people's will in the last election. The decision of the people to select someone to represent them should never be undone lightly. A high standard also protects the very reason we send lawmakers to Little Rock -- they are there to govern. If a poorly crafted bill allows for a recall effort just because someone doesn't like a vote, the ability of Arkansas' 100 representatives and 35 senators to do their jobs will be stymied.

Why in the world would Arkansas lawmakers approve a measure that's unlikely to help them and might actually be used against them one day? Because they collectively need to realize it's up to them to restore people's faith in the institutions. People need to feel that the Legislature is a place where members focus on what's good for Arkansas, not what's good for individual lawmakers.

We hope in the legislative session that starts in early 2019 we will witness lawmakers eager to restore public confidence. Recall elections can be a strong part of doing just that.

Commentary on 10/28/2018