Training New Legislators
Now that the election is over, the Arkansas Senate and Arkansas House of Representatives will be holding orientation sessions for their newly elected members. The House is larger and therefore holds a marathon five-day orientation. These sessions introduce new legislators to legislative procedures, the state budget, and other important information. It also gives the new legislators and returning legislators an opportunity to get to know one another and form bonds prior to the frenzied pace of a legislative session.
But there is another side to the orientation for new legislators. The sessions also end up being used to bring big money lobbyists and new legislators together.
As the new and old legislators get to know one another they also spend time together during meals and cocktail time. These events don’t cost taxpayers directly because the clients of lobbyists pay for events for the entire Senate or House or a committee of either body. There is even an exception in the ethics laws to allow lobbyists to pay for meals if they invite a full committee, the full House of Representatives, or the full Senate.
We assume the primary goal of the legislature going to these events is to give legislators an opportunity to get know one another away from the public. The downside is that lobbyists wouldn’t be paying for it if they did not think the events helpful in bringing legislators into their fold.
The “events” don’t stop with orientation. Once the legislative session starts in January, most days have events for free food and drink sponsored by lobbyists.
Because of COVID-19, this year’s orientation looks to be a bigger challenge for both legislators and lobbyists. Several legislators have had the COVID-19 virus. The lobbyist events will go on probably with some social distancing, but COVID is likely to limit the interaction among legislators and between legislators and lobbyists. Legislators may be reluctant to hang around after the food and drinks to socialize and discuss politics.
Will this affect the extent to which new legislators get to know and trust returning legislators? And, if so, is that a good or bad thing?
As for lobbyists, we assume they have been working hard to come up with more ways to bring new legislators into their fold.
Will COVID-19 get legislators looking at the lobbyist free food and drink tradition differently? Will they then make changes in their procedures? Would taxpayers be willing to foot the bill for the events to take the lobbyists out of the picture? And what about the current system that allows a legislator to double dip with free lobbyist food and drink while pocketing a daily payment for food?
There may be no changes in how they do business but we think the legislature will be more conservative in their policies. With all the upheaval in the country right now, Arkansas voters will be watching and hoping the Arkansas legislature steps up to the plate and vote conservative, despite what the big lobbyists want.
The orientation for the House of Representatives is scheduled for December 7-11. The Senate orientation dates have not been posted as of this writing.