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.