Sunday issue: lobbyist spending limits

The July 31st GOP primary ballot is one of the signs that our state senators and representatives are starting to hear the people on the matter of capping lobbyists’ largesse at the Gold Dome. Below, read what the editorial board has to say, along with an opposing commentary.

Reform effort catches on

By the AJC Editorial Board

Eventually, the message will sink in, for the concept is pretty simple. It goes like this:

Georgia voters seem increasingly tired of the free spending ways at the Gold Dome. We’re certainly not referring to profligate spending by members of the General Assembly. Not at all, given lawmakers have cut state government outlays by the billions since the Great Recession struck.

Rather, the ongoing issue is with the millions lavished each year on state legislators by lobbyists for virtually any entity you can envision. The sky is the only limit to the good times and good feelings that lobbyists can engender among our elected leaders. That’s not good governance.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to all but those who serve in the Georgia House or Senate that taxpayers are growing weary of this “Yes, there is a free lunch” mind-set.

The latest body to make known its disapproval of current practices was the Georgia Republican Party, whose executive committee voted to put the question of just-how-much-is-too-much on its July 31 primary ballot. Voters choosing the Republican lineup will thus have somewhat of a say in whether this “unlimited spending” should be reined in by a $100 lobbyist gift cap.

Those choosing a Democratic ballot will see a similar question.

Gambling is illegal in Georgia, so we won’t wager on the outcome except to suggest that the final voting results that day may prove interesting, to say the least.

Of course, the results of this primary day question are in no way binding on the Legislature. It’s merely an advisory opinion — yet another data point of the kind politicians routinely collect and analyze as part of their efforts to stay in power.

The numbers may prove surprising to lawmakers inclined to stay on the current path of unlimited bounty. A December poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Georgia Newspaper Partnership found overwhelming support for a gift cap among 625 Georgia voters surveyed. Among voters identifying as Republicans, 82 percent favored enacting a gift cap.

It’s our belief that legislative leaders should not, with a dismissive wave, pooh-pooh the rising level of Georgians’ discontent with their behavior. And, indeed, there are signs that our senators and representatives are starting to hear the people on this matter.

Nearly 20 lawmakers or candidates have put their names on a pledge binding them to support a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts to legislators. Good for them. Among those who have bravely signed on is Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, that chamber’s top Republican.

Against that rising backdrop are the General Assembly’s old guard, firm in their belief that the current policy of requiring disclosure, but not limits, of lobbyist expenses is the best way. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has been a leading proponent of this status quo. In an interview this month, Ralston said, “I’m always open at looking at different ways of improving our law.” Ralston then repeated this stance: “I trust the people to give them information, full transparency and open information and let them make a decision.”

That’s better, Ralston said, than “an arbitrary, unworkable line that, frankly, I think is a gimmick.”

True, the old sunshine-is-the-best-disinfectant argument does have some merit. However, it is not nearly enough.

As Georgians have reined in their own household spending during these rugged economic times, we’d submit that, if nothing else, lawmakers could set a powerful example by doing the same — agreeing to enact reasonable limits on just how much wine, food or other entertainment can be poured upon them in one sitting. After all, the “gift” of a $100 meal or event ticket is still far from chump change, in our view.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

Georgia’s system beats other states

By Dan Moody

Reading about the ongoing debate over lobbying regulations reminds me of the Mark Twain saying, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

Lobbyist spending has come under intense fire this past year in Georgia by watchdog organizations and tea party groups with the willing and able help of the news media, sometimes even making veiled charges of corruption toward our state legislators.

If anything, you can charge Georgia lawmakers with being too honest, based on how other states allow exceptions and lack of reporting requirements in their regulations on lobbyist spending.

Georgia law is crafted to require all lobbyist spending to be publicly disclosed, instead of creating a system of exceptions as other states have done. This is a much different approach, and I believe a much better one, than how some of the 47 states with a lobbyist spending cap function.

In Georgia, this means that if a lobbyist buys a legislator lunch, it has to be reported to the state transparency commission within two weeks of the expenditure being made. But if a lobbyist bought lunch for a Nebraska legislator, the name of the legislator would not be publicly disclosed at all. Which effectively means the public would never know about the lunch or its possible relevance to any specific issue before the Legislature.

Each winter, the Savannah Chamber of Commerce sponsors a reception for hundreds of people including legislators and other attendees at the Georgia Freight Depot. This event is often considered one of the most expensive events of the year, yielding a price tag as high as $87,000. How do we know this? Only because it is reported to the state transparency commission. If this same type of event were hosted by a chamber of commerce in Utah, it would not have to be disclosed or reported to anyone because it would not be considered a lobbying expenditure under their laws, which would put the public in the dark.

If a group of lobbyists were to sponsor a dinner for one of the standing committees in the Georgia House or Senate, every dime must be disclosed to the state transparency commission no matter what time of year the dinner is held. If this same dinner were to take place in Nevada, nothing spent on that dinner would have to be reported to anyone, as long as the dinner were held when the Legislature was not in session.

I don’t believe the laws in Georgia are perfect, but they are much better than the media and others give them credit for, and much more transparent than those in other states.

Here we don’t hide behind cleverly designed loopholes and exceptions. Instead, lobbyists are required to report every instance of spending on legislators, so Georgians can decide what is appropriate and what is not. The statement that Georgia is one of three states without lobbying restrictions doesn’t give an accurate representation of the entire picture.

Dan Moody, a Republican from Johns Creek, served as a Georgia state senator from 2002 to 2010.

Eventually, the message will sink in, for the concept is pretty simple. It goes like this:
Georgia voters seem increasingly tired of the free spending ways at the Gold Dome. We’re certainly not referring to profligate spending by members of the General Assembly. Not at all, given lawmakers have cut state government outlays by the billions since the Great Recession struck.
Rather, the ongoing issue is with the millions lavished each year on state legislators by lobbyists for virtually any entity you can envision. The sky is the only limit to the good times and good feelings that lobbyists can engender among our elected leaders. That’s not good governance.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to all but those who serve in the Georgia House or Senate that taxpayers are growing weary of this “Yes, there is a free lunch” mind-set.
The latest body to make known its disapproval of current practices was the Georgia Republican Party, whose executive committee voted to put the question of just-how-much-is-too-much on its July 31 primary ballot. Voters choosing the Republican lineup will thus have somewhat of a say in whether this “unlimited spending” should be reined in by a $100 lobbyist gift cap.
Those choosing a Democratic ballot will see a similar question.
Gambling is illegal in Georgia, so we won’t wager on the outcome except to suggest that the final voting results that day may prove interesting, to say the least.
Of course, the results of this primary day question are in no way binding on the Legislature. It’s merely an advisory opinion — yet another data point of the kind politicians routinely collect and analyze as part of their efforts to stay in power.
The numbers may prove surprising to lawmakers inclined to stay on the current path of unlimited bounty. A December poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Georgia Newspaper Partnership found overwhelming support for a gift cap among 625 Georgia voters surveyed. Among voters identifying as Republicans, 82 percent favored enacting a gift cap.
It’s our belief that legislative leaders should not, with a dismissive wave, pooh-pooh the rising level of Georgians’ discontent with their behavior. And, indeed, there are signs that our senators and representatives are starting to hear the people on this matter.
Nearly 20 lawmakers or candidates have put their names on a pledge binding them to support a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts to legislators. Good for them. Among those who have bravely signed on is Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, that chamber’s top Republican.
Against that rising backdrop are the General Assembly’s old guard, firm in their belief that the current policy of requiring disclosure, but not limits, of lobbyist expenses is the best way. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has been a leading proponent of this status quo. In an interview this month, Ralston said, “I’m always open at looking at different ways of improving our law.” Ralston then repeated this stance: “I trust the people to give them information, full transparency and open information and let them make a decision.”
That’s better, Ralston said, than “an arbitrary, unworkable line that, frankly, I think is a gimmick.”
True, the old sunshine-is-the-best-disinfectant argument does have some merit. However, it is not nearly enough.
As Georgians have reined in their own household spending during these rugged economic times, we’d submit that, if nothing else, lawmakers could set a powerful example by doing the same — agreeing to enact reasonable limits on just how much wine, food or other entertainment can be poured upon them in one sitting. After all, the “gift” of a $100 meal or event ticket is still far from chump change, in our view.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

8 comments Add your comment

Peace

June 3rd, 2012
9:14 am

The Wrong Root Cause: Would you object to your comments being reprinted in a community newspaper with the source credited to this AJC blog?

middleground

June 2nd, 2012
8:55 pm

Well stated The Wrong Root Cause. I hope the AJC will print that in its editorial page!
Actually after watching the county commissioners engorging themsleves like ga ticks sucking on the tax payers it appears our one party state is more MAFIA like than ever before.
Too many commissioners are on the take and are getting off free by simply refusing to testify.
With the GBI gutted to the bone, Georgia citizens are in gangster like hands. They truly rule like monsters and torture people with all their power of government.

Melaine

June 2nd, 2012
7:43 pm

I completely agree with dekalbcountyga. Limit and report in full. Why do the choices have to be either – or? The perception of politicians in a freebie fed haze is not helped by the rejection of limits of perks for themselves. Politicians pass laws written by groups only interested in protecting themselves. Remember wine from out-of-state wineries cannot be shipped to individuals in Georgia and who does that benefit? Would any lawmaker have come up with that one on their own? That is a funny one but not the only instance that legislation has been passed that benefits or protects a special interest. Political protection by lawmakers for special interest groups is a long standing reciprocity agreement and perks only help to pay the way.

Shanquilla

June 2nd, 2012
1:44 pm

“It’s becoming increasingly clear to all but those who serve in the Georgia House or Senate that taxpayers are growing weary…”

“Growing” weary? I grew weary of this crap years ago. I vote in every election, and I always – without exception – vote against the incumbent when there is a challenger. If more people would do this the entrenched, arrogant politicians would sit up and take notice.

dekalbcountyga

June 2nd, 2012
12:05 pm

It’s easy to keep both sides happy. Limit the contribution AND report it.

[...] Sunday issue: lobbyist spending limits Voters choosing the Republican lineup will thus have somewhat of a say in whether this “unlimited spending” should be reined in by a $ 100 lobbyist gift cap. Those choosing a Democratic ballot will see a similar question. Gambling is illegal in Georgia, … Read more on Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]

Hillbilly D

June 2nd, 2012
1:07 am

How about a limit of $0. If I’m not mistaken, other state employees can’t receive gifts.

The wrong root cause

June 1st, 2012
8:33 pm

Everyone talks about the limits on lobbyist donations, campaign donations and the like as if the problem was fundamentally rooted in the influence peddling of those outside the government criminal enterprise. Everyone is looking at the wrong end of the equation. The libertarians have had it right all along.

The problem is not with how much others spend to inflence government, but the fact that government can do what it can in the first place. If government could not throw up regulations that could harm a competitor or grant priviledge to a specific company, what would be the point in trying to buy such a vote?

If government could not steal millions, billions, or even trillions from the general public to throw around to developers, big business, military contractors and the like, what benefit would there be in buying votes on future contracts?

If the government could not steal from the taxpayers to provide direct subsidies to special groups, could not set up restrictive licensing requirements that protected established business people from competition, and could not mandate the purchase of certain goods or services from a favored industry, etc. what would be the benefit of a monetary contribution to the campaigns of these elected officials.

Crazy you say? It is absolutely the heart of the problem – government power. Libertarians have been correctly pointing out that the power of government MUST be slashed to the bone and beyond. This is not just because government is the least efficient group of folks to address every problem we have (frankly they have created nearly all of them), but also because that power is the source of all the evil, corruption, and influence peddling that everyone finds so distasteful and that is blatently criminal.

That is not to say that there are not services that are needed in society. But if these services were instead provided by multiple competing businesses through voluntary exchange of money for the good or service, what could be financially gained by paying off a state senator? So long as the govenrment kept its nose out of the marketplace, it would be far more beneficial for the businessman to put the money into working hard, better advertising, better service, etc. to win customers.

The crony capitalism that drives this country (yes, that is what we have, not a free market despite all the lies you have been told and have believed) relies on the influence peddling (also called “rent seeking”) that goes on between businesses and govenrment. Rather than having to face competition (either from a domestic competitor or from a foreign one – can you say tarrifs?) the businessman finds it far easier to get ahead by screwing their competitor and the general public through the power of government. Even government agencies and the people that work for them find it easier to vote for government officials that will steal on their behalf to pay them a salary than to actually set up a business that has to compete in the marketplace.

We can go on and on (and we have for many decades now) complaining about “ethics”, “campaign finance limits”, and “lobbyist limits” but the problem will never go away so long as govenrment has the power to steal and micromanage the economy by destroying the freedoms afforded by the free market and its inherent controls. The sooner we face those facts and slash the size and power of government, the sooner we can all benefit from a society in which hard work and not hard cash decides who wins and who loses economically.

The alternative of course would be to only elect folks who stand for such principles. Congressman Ron Paul never has a lobbyist waiting to see him at his office because they know he votes against EVERY exercise of government power that is outside of the strict limits imposed by the constitution. In that way he has taken a stand against the abuse of power.

Unfortunately far too many people think that fascism/crony capitalism is the way the economy is supposed to work. They cannot see beyond the legislation that is “promised to keep us safe” to see that the very companies that are being “regulated” are the authors of the legislation or that the real effect of the legislation will be to destroy their superior competitors that are already providing a safer, cheaper, or superior product to the marketplace. But then that’s what happens when all your political and economic information comes from the TV or newspapers like the AJC.