Ditch Southern politeness for just a moment.
That done, we offer this advice to the Georgia General Assembly: Don’t screw this up. Meaning that the legislature must pass substantial ethics reform legislation — this year.
There are many in the state legislature who seem legitimately to want to heed the people’s wish and tighten restrictions on lobbyist spending. That admirable intent should not be waylaid, hijacked or sidetracked this year.
This is not a cause that should be fumbled in 2013 and taken up again next January.
That shouldn’t be an option. When the session’s gaveled to a close Thursday, ethics reform needs to be among the substantive pieces of legislation passed in a year with relatively few hot-button issues that should have distracted lawmakers.
Lawmakers must heed the will of voters who’re dismayed if not disgusted by the anything-goes-as-long-as-you-‘fess-up atmosphere that is the current way of the Gold Dome.
Simply adopting a more-ethical way of doing business should not be so difficult. Not in a year when ethics reform was allegedly high on the agenda from Day 1.
The Georgia Senate slapped in place on its first day an ethics rule with a $100 gift cap — and notable instances where the limit did not apply. Across the building, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, followed through on his notable change of opinion regarding ethics practices and introduced a bill banning lobbyist gifts — again, with not-insignificant exceptions.
Ralston’s House passed its version of ethics legislation Feb. 25 — leaving the Senate ample time to quickly take up the matter and begin the give-and-take that normally marks passage of much legislation. Yet it took the Senate until Friday — 26 calendar days — to take a full vote on the matter. That lengthy delay is unconscionable and may have damaged beyond repair the cause of passing ethics reform this year.
Flip the calendar ahead a month. With three days remaining in the session, why are we this far from the goal? As in beginning the final week at legislative loggerheads as the House and Senate dig into entrenched positions on the merit of a gift “ban” versus a gift “cap.” In the end, the argument will be about a distinction without a real difference. That’s because no knowledgeable observer expects lobbyist spending to drop anywhere near zero, even after reforms take effect. There’s not a chance of that happening, given the loopholes that will inevitably be part of any new law.
The best we can hope for are significant curbs in the current practices, backed by rigorous disclosure and a state ethics body with adequate resources to ensure compliance. That would be a worthwhile and significant improvement.
That said, Ralston’s concept of ethics reform — a ban, in most instances — seems the more-workable and easily understandable path to achieve the widely desired result. As we’ve said before, Ralston, who absorbed considerable heat for accepting a lobbyist-paid $17,000 trip to Europe in 2010, showed political courage and wisdom in later coming around to push for a near-total ban.
Yet, the Senate’s proposal builds on the $100 cap. Its revision of the House’s work was passed on Friday.
That pushes matters into this week, when a conference committee is likely to be called to order to try and reconcile the dispute. The danger is that the House and Senate could battle to a draw in the name of safeguarding differing, strongly held principles. That would lead to a throwing-up of hands and saying in unison, “Maybe next year.”
Uh-uh. Not good enough. Not when 71.3 percent of respondents in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll last December indicated legislators should “accept no gifts” from lobbyists. That’s consistent with results from last July’s election, when 82 percent of those voting favored ethics reform placed on the ballot in the form of a non-binding advisory question.
Lawmakers should review those results as they weigh whether compromising on an absolute “ban” or a “cap” will play well with voters in the next election cycle. Georgia will be better off if they instead concentrate on doing the right thing.
That will take real statesmanship and wisdom from our General Assembly this week. It’s up to them to make ethics reform happen this year.
They should know by now that the topic’s not going away.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board