Keep driving toward ethics reform in Georgia

The people are waiting — and watching.
Members of the Georgia General Assembly must remember that as the matter of ethics reform jerks and clatters along legislative assembly lines.
The end result should be, finally, a solid, enacted package of ethics reform. Its cornerstone should be a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers.
Georgia’s made starts at this before, with some incremental fixes. In 2013, legislators should tie all the loose ends into a comprehensive law that ends a suspect way of doing business at the Gold Dome. The antics that are forcing change have battered citizen confidence in government. With good reason.
Yes, complaining about all things public is an old American pastime. There’s a bright distinction, though, between grousing about the sausage-grinding of representative democracy and harboring a fundamental distrust of, and distaste for, same.
It is now up to the Legislature to give citizens a reason to begin rethinking their currently dour attitudes toward state government. Continued inaction or diversionary tactics will only make our state, counties and towns increasingly difficult to effectively govern. That’s intolerable in an age where information, people, jobs and investment capital can seamlessly and quickly migrate across borders faster than ever before.
We need better. The prevailing view at the capital until recently has been that disclosure alone of lobbyist largesse is sufficient. That, the thinking goes, should be enough to keep the electorate placated.
This convenient theory’s in danger of collapse, we’d suggest. Financial admissions of over-the-top spending have, we’d argue, helped fuel citizen anger at the current anything-goes-as-long-as-we-confess system at the Gold Dome. A recent poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that only 2.9 percent of metro Atlantans polled characterized legislators as being “highly ethical and honest.” It follows then that 71.3 percent of those polled statewide believed lawmakers should not take gifts from lobbyists. The need for change should be readily apparent by now.
So far this legislative session we’ve seen the state Senate quickly enact a rule setting a gift cap. It is not law, however. Rather, it is a rule — one riddled with loopholes. While not more than $100 can be poured upon a single legislator in a single instance, that caveat doesn’t apply to committees or subcommittees. And such bodies, as state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, aptly noted, are “where the real influence happens.” Lobbyists can also heap gifts upon senators’ family or staffers.
All told, the rule is a start along the right path, but no more than that.
In the House, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was pretty blunt in his disdain for what the Senate rule represented, notably calling it more of a “sun visor” than a real cap.
Ralston, who helped restore some credibility to the House after his predecessor resigned in disgrace, is familiar with this business. His ill-advised but perfectly legal, $17,000 lobbyist-paid trip to Europe to study high-speed trains went viral and helped fuel calls for ethics reform. Ralston, once a proponent of the bring-gifts-but-disclose-them governance model, now says he favors a full ban.
Capitol watchers are awaiting House ethics legislation that Ralston’s promised will come as early as this week.
We’re hopeful that Ralston’s instincts and understanding of the need for real statesmanship will result in a bill that brings an end to lobbyists’ splurging on lawmakers. It should also improve openness in required disclosures (the General Assembly is not currently subject to open records laws, a fact that should change). True reform should also provide adequate funding and teeth for a true watchdog ethics oversight body.
Georgians have made it increasingly clear that substantial ethics reform is what they expect. It is time for the General Assembly to listen and to act accordingly and swiftly in a forthright manner.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

8 comments Add your comment

Marlboro Man

January 28th, 2013
12:45 pm

Was it ethical of the gov’t to pay the ransom to Rodgers ? Why is he blackmailed ??

Road Scholar

January 28th, 2013
10:43 am

dcb: No gifts= no influence! Done! They get paid by the people to do the peoples’ business. Now do their job!

Quantavious

January 27th, 2013
1:10 pm

The only way we, the public, ever know about all the “antics” under the dome is by way of the media. You literally are our eyes and ears. I haven’t always been the ajc’s biggest fan but I do greatly appreciate the good job you do of keeping a close eye on our elected officials.

James

January 27th, 2013
8:02 am

Elected representatives are paid a good salary. Their job is to be the voice and act for their constituents. ANY gifts from lobbyist are bribes intended to influence their decisions. ANY gift should be illegal and both the giver and receiver should be subject to prosecution.

dcb

January 27th, 2013
8:00 am

Until I see some connection between a vote on an issue and the amount of gifts given to individual legislators by lobbyists whose firm benefited from those votes, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to our legislators. This automatic discrediting of any of our elected officials because they are seen in the company of a lobbyist is sickening. I may not like the vote of my local politico, but that doesn’t automatically mean he or she’s vote was bought.

MrLiberty

January 26th, 2013
9:51 pm

We don’t need ethics “reform”, we just need ETHICS – period.

The tragedy is that the problem is being looked at from the wrong end – just like the issue of campaign finance. Everyone sees the problem of lobbyists buying off elected officials and thinks that the problem can be fixed by drying up the money at the front end (with the lobbyists, campaign contributors, etc.). But what is it that the lobbyists (or big donors) are buying in the first place?

Government is able to micromanage virtually every aspect of the economy to the absolute direct benefit of whomever they wish. They can regulate away competitors, tax away competitors, create other barriers to market entry on behalf of those already there, create license requirements that will impede competition, they can provide direct financial payments to existing businesses in the form of contracts, or direct subsidies and can enrich bottom lines with tax breaks etc. They can even go so far as to pass legislation that will destroy entire classes of business operation or even entire industries. They can tax certain groups of people thus reducing their available financial resources for spending, can impose fees that further drain budgets, or even tax specific goods or services thus destroying those industries. This is enormous power the legislature has and is FAR beyond the powers that they possessed only a few generations ago (certainly at the founding of our state/nation.

Is it right that the government should be able to wield this much power over life and death of both individuals and corporations/businesses? Fundamentally isn’t this a far greater problem for us all and ultimately the mechanism that lobbyists are trying to control with their money? Wouldn’t we all be far better off as a society. a state, and a nation if our government was not in possession/control of these powers? It would be unquestionably illegal if a private business or individual were to attempt to exercise these kinds of powers. Why is it not just as illegal for government to? These laws are not about preventing fraud, force, theft, etc. They are strictly about using the force of government to pick and choose winners in what was supposed to be a free market.

But who will stand up for these values? We look to the republicans and find tremendous support for legislation that benefits their friends in the corporate world (to the detriment of competitive companies/industries). The same with the democrats. The particular companies or industries may be different between the two parties, but the corporatist principle is the same and the people of Georgia and America are all suffering for this systemic corruption and collusion.

On the other hand, parties like the Libertarians, Constitution, American Independent and others promote the idea of slashing government power back to the bare bones leaving only the most fundamental tasks of judicial system oversight, safety, and the enforcement of laws against force, fraud, etc. (real crimes against real people or property). Specifically the Libertarians have always been rock solid champions of these limits while the others promote the ideas to a lesser degree – so there are alternatives to the two-party problem.

So instead of constantly trying to put a velvet chain around an out of control beast in order to contain him, why not take the power away from the beast and eliminate the problem at its source. All of GA would be so much better off with far, far less government and a government with far, far less power to control and destroy our lives.

Dave

January 26th, 2013
8:04 pm

Mr. Jackson, best of luck to you and us, not that the folks under the Dome are going to do much more than they can have to to get us off their backs. Which will happen soon after the session ends and all is back to the normal legal graft.

Hillbilly D

January 26th, 2013
6:44 pm

I wish the ethics reformers the best but I’ll believe it when I see it. Most likely they’ll pass a feel good bill with more holes than a screen door.