A nonbinding question on the July 31 ballot asks if there should be a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators. A conservative renews a call for officials to refuse perks, but an ethicist says the proposed cap only distracts from larger systemic problems.
Today’s moderator is Tom Sabulis. Commenting is open below following Kay Godwin’s column.
By Andrew I. Cohen
The proposed lobbyist gift cap is a well-intentioned step toward more transparent state government. It has bipartisan support and watchdog groups love it. But it is a toothless measure that distracts from more fundamental problems.
This newspaper recently reported that total lobbyist gifts for public officials this year alone are nearly $1 million. Georgia is one of three states that do not restrict such gifts. Our public officials then curry public favor by pledging support for the gift cap.
Lobbyists treat some state officials to lavish trips abroad, expensive meals or pricey knickknacks. Meanwhile, our state has high unemployment, a continuing foreclosure crisis and one of the nation’s highest rates of bank failures. Many citizens are outraged that lawmakers enjoy such perks while they and their local communities struggle.
The $100 lobbyist gift cap would hardly make a dent in this. It would restrict not total giving but the amount per gift. Disclosure requirements would fall on lobbyists, not lawmakers. This is all silly. A $250 dinner with fine wine might then just be a bunch of small gifts. Get a check after each course. Feed the lawmaker’s family, too. Different people, different gifts.
It should not surprise us that lobbyists spend so much on our public officials: The money goes where the money is. Georgia’s budgets are routinely in the tens of billions of dollars. Officials have regulatory powers that can make or break businesses. So it looks as if people are buying access and paying off state officials — taking unfair shortcuts that undermine the rule of law and responsible government.
A complete ban on lobbyist gifts might be a slight improvement, but even that would not fix much. The fundamental problem is neither with lobbyists buying influence nor with lawmakers enjoying inappropriate goodies. The problem is contemporary democracy.
We have political institutions that encourage lawmakers and the voters that elect them to tax and regulate other people for their favorite projects. Whether it is through regulations that unfairly burden one group, special tax incentives to woo industry or bonds our children will have to pay off, the benefits are often concentrated but the costs are spread throughout the state. The stakes are too high.
Of course, one person’s special project is another’s vital state policy. We should then consider reforming institutions to make spending more transparent and accountable, and to connect benefits to costs. Georgia has a great tradition of local governance; this could be deepened. Among other proposals policy experts suggest are supermajorities for statewide tax increases or bond issues, and empowering the governor to have “item-reduction” vetoes in addition to the line-item veto. These measures might restrict the size of government and leave people and local communities with a greater freedom to live their own lives while minimizing the costs they impose on others. The proposed lobbyist gift cap is a paltry, misplaced bandage on a patient with more serious wounds.
Andrew I. Cohen is director of the Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics and teaches philosophy at Georgia State University.
By Kay Godwin
Our legislators often tell us that lobbyist and special interest money does not affect the way they vote on any particular issue: Being wined and dined, receiving free tickets to sporting events, enjoying complimentary hunting and vacation trips and other perks in no way influences their decision-making process. Some legislators assert that a meal from a four-star restaurant is equivalent to a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant.
It is difficult for many Georgians to accept the validity of these statements. If nothing else, through perks such as meals at high-end restaurants, vacations and tickets to sporting events, legislators interact with and become more socially familiar with benefactors; these social activities create a more intimate relationship between the benefactor and lobbyist(s) than may be established during a hamburger meal at a fast-food restaurant. Moreover, constituents who patronize luxury restaurants and events have different interests from those who can afford only the hamburger.
Georgia is the only Southern state that does not have some type of ethics-reform legislation that limits the amount of contributions a lobbyist can make to an individual legislator; it is one of only three states in America that has not passed legislation of this type for elected officials.
This is not to imply that Georgia’s legislators act unethically in their representation of citizens, or that they fail to maintain the highest ethical standards in conducting the state’s business. However, any entity that chooses to resist the accountability of its members invites public mistrust and suspicious scrutiny. This past legislative session, a major portion of Georgia’s elected officials was apathetic and arrogantly opposed to ethics reform.
Georgia Conservatives in Action is requesting Georgia’s elected officials and candidates for office to reassure their constituents that they respect the right of every Georgian to have equal access to their legislators by signing our pledge. With their signature, legislators state their willingness to hold their contributions from lobbyist and special interest groups to $100 per legislative session.
Many candidates and elected officials have chosen to sign our pledge. To those who are willing to be held publicly accountable, we say thank you for your support of ethics reform and your support of a limit on contributions made by lobbyist and special interest groups.
Kay Godwin is founder of Georgia Conservatives in Action.