By Josh McKoon
Our governor, Nathan Deal, summed up the challenge that faces us on adopting ethics reform in his State of the State Address. He said we “can build the strongest foundations … upon which our state government will rest; but if the citizens of Georgia don’t trust us, it will all be in vain… .”
Leaders in our state have taken steps toward ethical governance. Gov. Deal implemented a $25 gift cap to set a standard for ethical behavior in government. Our speaker of the House, David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, first ran for speaker when many knew ethical lapses had been committed by the incumbent speaker. Few were willing to voice them, let alone stand in opposition.
Speaker Ralston and House leadership have imposed tough rules on committee chairmen who fail to timely file their required disclosures. The new Senate president pro tempore, David Shafer, sponsored a $50 gift cap as a floor leader for Gov. Sonny Perdue and co-sponsored my comprehensive ethics legislation. Shafer, together with Senate leadership and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, proposed a gift limit rule that was adopted by the Senate on the first day of the legislative session.
These actions demonstrate the commitment of our leaders to ethics reform. So the question is: What measures should be a part of ethics reform legislation? I suggest there are several components that should be considered.
—First, we must address the current practice that has come to symbolize our confidence gap with the public — unlimited giving by lobbyists to legislators. It is imperative that we enact legislation ending unlimited gifts and join the 47 other states that have already acted on this.
—Second, we need mechanisms to handle public corruption at the state and local level. One proposal that could address this would be to empower the attorney general to empanel a statewide grand jury with investigatory powers allowing him to inquire into instances of alleged misconduct and prosecute misconduct.
—Third, we should examine how we define “lobbying activity” and what makes someone a “lobbyist.” A code that prescribes rules and disclosure for lobbyists is not useful if it does not include people who are engaged in lobbying but do not fall within that definition. However, we do not want to chill citizen activism by those who wish to have their voices heard by elected officials.
—Fourth, we need to guarantee that funding for the (Ethics) Commission will not become a political football. Whether done through Constitutional Amendment or other means, it is important that the commission has the resources to perform its watchdog function. Additionally, a discussion about who may serve on the commission and how commissioners are selected could also be helpful.
Finally, the commission charged with enforcement of the code should have rule-making authority to have flexibility to provide guidance on situations the legislature did not contemplate when adopting the code.
We have the leadership necessary to tackle this challenge. It is now a matter of prioritizing reforms and agreeing on these and other ethics measures. If we succeed, the trust built with the public will allow us to confront the public policy challenges ahead.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, represents Harris and Meriwether counties and portions of Muscogee and Troup counties.