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.