Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The landslide in favor of ethics reform in Georgia on the July 31 primary ballot was even bigger than the overwhelming vote against the T-SPLOST. But a former secretary of state writes that a ban on gifts is just one step on the road to reform. And a watchdog group leader applauds the house speaker’s recently announced support of a gift ban.
Trust is the big issue with ethics reform
By Karen C. Handel
Trust. It’s essential for successful relationships with friends, spouses, business partners and even between citizens and their elected leaders. Unfortunately here in Georgia, citizens seem to have lost virtually all trust in our elected leaders. And who can blame them?
Ethics and integrity have taken a beating over the past few years. But on July 31, an overwhelming majority of voters sent a message that ethics do matter by voting “yes” on the ballot question in support of a $100 cap on gifts to state legislators.
It’s time to acknowledge that voter confidence has deteriorated to the point that it’s become a major roadblock to solving some of our state’s most urgent problems. Fixing transportation, improving education, reinvigorating our economy and getting job creation going again require big solutions involving difficult decisions.
I think that most, if not all, citizens understand this. But they must be able to have faith in those determining the course — faith that decisions are made in the state’s best interest and not for special interests or self-interest. Voters need to have confidence that our elected leaders will actually deliver and keep their word.
Some mock the gift cap as a gimmick. Some say that limiting gifts to legislators will have little impact in fostering a culture of higher ethics. Still others argue that the gifts — tickets to high-profile sporting and concert events, fine dinners, even trips to resorts and Europe — mean nothing to them. If the gifts mean nothing, why fight so hard to keep them? Even the U.S. Congress got the message that cutting off the flow of gifts meant something and enacted a complete gift ban.
While a gift gap — or even better, an outright ban on gifts — is a step in the right direction, it is just one small part of real ethics reform. With the recent vote, there seems to be growing support in the Legislature, and that’s encouraging.
However, transparency and accountability are just as important — even more so. Meaningful reforms must include: extending open records and open meetings requirements to state legislators and the business of the Legislature; establishing an independent ethics body free from interference and fully funded with rulemaking authority; adopting conflict of interests rules that prohibit elected officials from pushing bills that benefit themselves, their clients or employers; and instituting a one-year cooling-off period before legislators can return to lobby the body they just left. And, let’s restore the commission’s name to the Ethics Commission, so that an ethics violation is called just that — rather than a filing error or defect. Anything short would be, well, a gimmick.
While the ballot question is nonbinding, the significant number of “yes” votes sent a strong message to the State Capitol that the people of Georgia do care about ethics. And, by moving forward with serious ethics reforms next January, our elected leaders can take a big step toward rebuilding the voter trust essential to solving the big issues facing our state.
Karen C. Handel is former Georgia secretary of state.
House speaker takes step in right direction
By William Perry
Late last week, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced that, in response to the overwhelming voter support to limit lobbyist gift spending on legislators, he will propose a “full ban” on gifts. I am extremely pleased that Speaker Ralston has changed his position on the issue.
This is a move that even the most cynical among us should applaud. It was a pleasant surprise, but upon further reflection, perhaps it should not have been a surprise at all. The voters have spoken clearly, loudly and overwhelmingly — 87 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats voted to limit lobbyist gifts to legislators in the July 31 primary elections. The speaker is responding with more stringent legislation than we asked for, so again, the “applause, please” sign is on.
Ralston’s acknowledgement of the voters’ wishes helps move the conversation forward. His support further substantiates the fact that this is an issue of concern for both political parties, as evidenced by the almost 50-50 percentage balance of Republican and Democratic candidates who signed the $100 gift cap pledge, as well as our nonpartisan balanced alliance of organizations pushing to limit gifts. The Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform consists of Common Cause Georgia, Georgia Conservatives in Action, Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Georgia Watch and the League of Women Voters of Georgia.
The speaker’s voice on this issue has lent support to two Republicans who stood nearly alone in their party last legislative session. Ethics reform champions Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and retiring Rep. Tommy Smith, R-Alma, both introduced ethics bills in the last session that received the cold shoulder. But with Ralston’s move, as well as a lot of pressure from voters during the election season, the temperature should warm up when the legislature meets in January.
However, we know it will be a difficult fight to get a full ban on lobbyist gifts (despite the fact all surrounding states have gift bans of varying degrees). Why will it be so tough? Because despite Ralston’s bold statements, legislative leaders aren’t necessarily jumping on the bandwagon. In an Aug. 16 AJC article, House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said in a statement he was committed to “full, open and immediate” disclosure of lobbyists’ gifts, and that it was legislators’ duty to respond to voters’ wishes. Note — he did not say he supports a “full gift ban” as Ralston has offered. If the speaker’s own committee chairmen aren’t jumping at the chance to line up behind his recommendation, it may be a tough sell to the rest of the legislature.
Still, the speaker and the voters have spoken. If the result is that we end up with a cap instead of a full ban, it will still be a tremendous milestone for Georgians and good government advocates. And, it will be a huge indicator of Ralston’s true political capital. We have applauded his gift ban support, if he actually gets it passed, he will deserve a full standing ovation.
William Perry is executive director of Common Cause Georgia.