Foreign Government-Funded Travel Approved By Arkansas House

Feb 6, 2017

Rep. Warwick Sabin (front row, middle). File photo 2017.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Lawmakers in the Arkansas House voted to allow foreign governments to pay for legislators’ travel expenses. In an 83-to-8 vote on Monday, the chamber advanced the measure which peels back a ban approved by voters in a 2014 constitutional amendment. State Representative Michelle Gray, of Melbourne in north Arkansas, said free travel for legislators will benefit the state.

“If a foreign government, say if Taiwan’s government wanted to pay for a member or the Speaker to go over there, that would be allowed in an official capacity,” said the Republican representative. She characterized the bill as providing "clean-ups" to the voter-approved ethics law. She noted corporate lobbyists couldn't fund the international travel.

Democrat Warwick Sabin of Little Rock helped craft the 2014, voter-approved amendment that banned most expenses-paid travel for lawmakers. Sabin cautioned fellow House member not to break the faith with voters with a “freight train sized loophole.”

“It basically cracks the door wide open to a lot of travel that we said we weren’t going to allow lobbyists to pay for in exchange for all of the other things that were part of that compromise amendment,” said Sabin. "Let's fulfill that intent."

The so-called ethics amendment also banned one-on-one wining and dining with lobbyists, in addition to raising legislative salaries. The bill by Rep. Gray re-defines travel expenses, no longer calling it a gift to give free international travel. From the well, Gray said the travel would be about “learning” to benefit the state and to generate economic investment.

Gray said she doesn’t believe the move goes against the will of the voters. She said she personally backed the constitutional amendment on the ballot and is seeking to make adjustments as the effects become clearer. The bill would also reduced a 30 day cure period for errors on campaign finance filings to 10 days.

The bill heads to the Senate where several changes are expected.