Saturday, October 1, 2016

How long is too long?

How long is too long? How long should any one person be allowed to serve in public office? Wyoming voters thought there should be a limit. They passed term limits overwhelmingly in 1992. Then they watched helplessly as the politicians went to court to overturn the will of the people.

Now no law answers the question, “How long?” The Hebrew prophet Habakkuk spoke of “men whose own might is their god.” In other words, it’s been too long when it’s more about political power than public service.

Consider State Senator Eli Bebout. He was first elected to the legislature three decades ago as a Democrat. Soon thereafter, promises of political rewards from the Republican hierarchy were enticement enough for him to shed that skin. Mr. Bebout became the Speaker of the House.

He took a few years respite from the legislature running unsuccessfully for Governor in 2002. The untimely 2007 death of esteemed Fremont County Senator Bob Peck opened the door for Mr. Bebout to return to the legislature where he’s been ever since.

How long is too long? Maybe the answer is not measured in years alone. Maybe it has to do with the callousness that grows with longevity. In Sen. Bebout’s case it’s the inability to understand that it’s offensive when his corporation, according to an ethics complaint filed against him, pocketed $26.7 million in state contracts from Abandoned Mines Land (AML) funds since 2010, with $8 million of that in “change orders” not put out for bid. 

Not surprisingly, his Republican Senate colleagues cleared him of any ethics violation. Is that determinative? Shouldn’t the voters ask other questions? After all, this legislator led the effort to kill Medicaid expansion. The program would have provided 18,000 Wyoming people with healthcare, 3,000 of which are Sen. Bebout’s constituents.

He said the federal government couldn’t be relied on to pay its share of Medicaid, but he relies on it to pay the AML dollars he receives, funds he voted to appropriate making the state senate the middle man between the feds and his own bank account.

How long is too long? Consider Natrona County State Senator Charlie Scott. Charlie’s been in the Wyoming legislature since Jimmy Carter’s administration. Unlike fine wine, Charlie hasn’t improved with age but rather has become the poster child for term limits.

Among his colleagues he is thought to be articulate. He is sufficiently articulate that his fellow legislators often believe him when they should be Googling a fact check. His ability to express himself hides his routine abuse of the facts. He has used his powerful position as chair of the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee to wage a war on struggling low-income families. His fingerprints are on the worst legislation the state has enacted negatively impacting worker safety, workers compensation, juvenile justice, child and family well-being and healthcare.

Charlie Scott’s cause celebre is to deny healthcare to 18,000 working families. He says these programs remind him of European-style socialism. But in his judgment, programs giving agricultural subsidies to wealthy landowners don’t fall into that category. Sen. Scott pockets thousands of dollars from the same federal government he says cannot be relied on to pay for Medicaid expansion.

But, Mr. Scott says, “it’s apples to oranges” comparing agricultural subsidies to Medicaid expansion. It’s more like apples and the shaft. He gets the apples and working folks get the shaft.

It’s more likely the grim reaper, rather than the voters, will take him out. That’s because Mr. Scott has also been the leader in Gerrymandering legislative districts. He’s made certain his seat is safe for life.

How long is too long? The question answers itself when legislators like Eli Bebout and Charlie Scott see no problem with taking public funds to enrich themselves while denying middle class and low-income working families the help they need. They’ve been in public office too long when they use the process to take care of themselves instead of those they are elected to serve.

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