With three-quarters of Georgia’s 2013 legislating days now done, the General Assembly should resolve to do whatever’s necessary to ensure comprehensive ethics reform becomes law his year. This important topic for Georgians and for our state’s system of government cannot fall by the wayside.
That means no “Oops” moments, legislative missteps of various sort or last-minute sleight-of-hand maneuvers should derail the cause of strengthening laws around how lobbyists interact with elected officials. Our state deserves better — the people have made that abundantly clear. An ethics law with teeth should be headed toward Gov. Nathan Deal for signing into law by the time the final gavel falls — this year.
We’re at least halfway there already, and lawmakers seem to have taken to heart the advisory questions from the July ballot that showed a tsunami of support for substantive change.
The Georgia Senate is expected as soon as this week to take up the cause of ethics by considering House Bill 142, which passed the House by a vote of 164-4 on Feb. 25. That date should be outlined in bold when historians write future works about state government.
There’s been a lot said about ethics during this year’s session of the General Assembly. Early on, it seemed as though the Senate and House were in a race to see which chamber would act first. By that measure, the Senate won, overwhelmingly passing a rule on Day 1 that lowered a $100 cap onto lobbyist expenditures. The rule contained sizable loopholes, among them the provision that lobbyists can expend $100 on senators as many times as they want, as long as no single gift exceeds that amount. The Senate rule shortcomings led House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to famously quip that it was more of “a visor” than a cap. He had a point.
Such political jockeying is the way of politics. It’s acceptable, and can be entertaining at times — as long as the people’s important work gets done by the time the cry of Sine Die echoes in the legislative halls. Improving Georgia’s rules around ethical behavior by lawmakers and lobbyists must get done.
It should prove no big deal then that Ralston has different ideas than the Senate about what constitutes ethics reform. After feeling considerable heat over a lobbyist-paid trip to Europe, Ralston now favors a total ban on gifts to individual lawmakers. That seemingly absolute stance is tempered by significant exceptions. It would be permissible, for example, to buy food for an entire committee, or for colleges to offer a single ticket annually to all state legislators for a sporting event.
House and Senate leaders deserve credit for hearing the voice of Georgians and for acting to tighten up free-flowing lobbyist spending at the Gold Dome. Their next act is to reconcile among the two chambers what change looks like.
All of which now leaves the state at the point where the final stages of wrangling will take place as lawmakers seek to craft final legislation that can draw sufficient votes to pass. In our view, we’re happy to take a wait-and-see posture and see what do’s and don’ts emerge at the end. We will note that public opinion on the final product will be heavily influenced by just how many loopholes and exceptions are contained in the final bill. Also included should be appropriate oversight and resources to ensure compliance.
The end result must be a significant reform in the current way of lobbying at the state capitol. The cause of good governance demands that.
Legislators have wisely acknowledged the wish of Georgians on the broader point above. Ethics reform cannot succeed if they lose attention to the details in the final days of the session.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.