Perfecting a sizable start on ethics reform

By Bob Irvin

Last month, the Georgia House of Representatives passed the most significant ethics reform bill in 20 years. It prohibits gifts to legislators from lobbyists (a “zero cap”), but with some significant exceptions — such as travel “in connection with official business.” Unfortunately, that could be interpreted to be almost anything. Now the whole state waits to see what the Senate does.
In the House, my old friend Rep. Rich Golick wondered aloud why Common Cause Georgia is supporting a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts, “which would lead to more lobbyist spending,” instead of the House bill’s zero cap. It’s a question that deserves a serious answer. Here it is.
First, we are simply trying to get the will of the voters implemented. Last summer, more than 1.2 million Georgians (83 percent of all those voting in both the Democratic and Republican primaries) voted for imposing a limit on lobbyist gifts, with Republicans voting specifically for a $100 cap. At the time, most of the House leadership was arguing that no limit at all was necessary, so $100 seemed pretty tight. After the vote, my friend House Speaker David Ralston announced that he would sponsor a zero cap, in response to the will of the voters.
We’re simply for what the voters expressed themselves as being for, though if the legislature wants to impose a tighter restriction, that would be fine with us, and no doubt with most Georgians. Of the 17 percent who voted “No” on the gift cap last summer, it is highly probable that most of them wanted something even tighter than $100.
Second, it is not at all clear that a $100 cap, with few or no exceptions, would lead to more lobbyist spending than a zero cap with significant exceptions. The most significant exceptions in the House bill are:
u25CF Travel (airfare and recreational activities are prohibited, but not other transportation, or lodging, or food and beverages)
u25CF Entertainment of the whole Legislature, or a caucus, or a standing committee, or a standing subcommittee.
Taken together, these loopholes are big enough to drive a Mack truck through, if somebody wanted to do so.
Speaker Ralston has been quoted as saying that ethics reform “is a complex issue.” He’s right, it is. Just as with any other bill, legislators have to not only get the policy right, but also the implementation, including thinking about how bad actors might try to circumvent it. That’s what the fine print is for, and this bill’s fine print needs some further “perfection,” to use the legislative argot.
Even so, the House bill contains some very good provisions and is a step forward in the legislative process toward  implementing the will of the people. A cheer for the House.
The bill is now in the Senate, which has already adopted its own $100 cap in its rules, and now will have the opportunity to close the loopholes in the House bill. One way to do that would be to keep the  zero cap,  and limit the exceptions to $100. Another (in addition, not instead of) would be to make clear that the exception for a committee doesn’t include the “committee of one member” that has often been used in the past. If the Senate does close the loopholes, then two cheers for the Senate.
After that, if it happens that way, then a conference committee will have the opportunity to agree on a “perfected” bill that finally brings Georgia in line with other Southeastern states. A lobbyist who is registered in both Georgia and Tennessee was recently quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, speaking about lobbyist spending on legislators : “If you look around the country, nobody really does it like Georgia.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. It’s time to fix that.
If our legislators do fix it, then three cheers for the General Assembly.

Bob Irvin is a former House Republican leader, and a board member of Common Cause Georgia. He lives in Atlanta.

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