The need was clear. Pass a law that would rein in limitless spending by lobbyists on members of the Georgia General Assembly.
That’s what the people wanted. In the end that’s not what Georgians got. Our lawmakers let us down.
When the behind-closed-doors, last-moment angling, maneuvering and arm-twisting ended late Thursday, the Legislature had managed to pass a bill on ethics reform. There’s little therein to praise, except that perhaps, in the broadest sense, passing something is preferable to doing nothing this year.
At least there is now on the record a most skeletal of limits on some lobbyist spending on lawmakers. That is better than no limit at all. And passage of House Bill 142 does change the tenor of future debate on this issue. Ethics reform advocates can and should build on that opening.
By passing such a weak, flawed law, the Capitol’s elected class have most likely managed to ensure that the push for ethics reform won’t end anytime soon. What lawmakers approved after a flurry of secretive horse-trading and exemption-fluffing still leaves us closer to the beginning, than the end, of the ethics movement. We can’t stop here.
This inadvertent energizing of the cause of ethics reform is the result of legislators stubbornly clinging to an outdated, insular Capitol culture in which the one-on-one relationship between lobbyist and lawmaker is held sacred. Our elected leaders apparently remain convinced that the people, “1984”-style, will gullibly accept changes that, in reality, achieve far too little toward a desirable end.
In so doing, they’ve left open the door for future “gimme more” abuses of the type that galvanized opponents to the ethics status quo in the first place. When that happens — not if — it will help push a real ethics overhaul toward approval.
What was accomplished in House Bill 142 is not nearly enough to meet citizen demand for a better way of behavior by lobbyists and legislators.
They should have gotten that message no later than last July when 82 percent of Georgia primary voters chose “yes” on advisory questions asking whether gift limits were advisable. Now they will have to learn the harder way, as the push for ethics changes continues unabated.
It’s almost impossible to think, given the end result, that the Legislature was serious about this cause. The two chambers spent all but the final hours of the 40-day session arguing, respectively, on behalf of either a gift cap or a gift ban. Given the number of loopholes that would have come with either strategy, each method — properly executed — could have had merit.
What we ended up with, unanimously passed by both houses Thursday, was a $75 gift “cap,” one with loopholes large enough to walk through — which ever-resourceful lobbyists will no doubt do.
The devil, as he always does, lurks squarely within the details. In this case, that is in exemptions to the cap. There are too many and they are too big.
Consider that, under HB 142, lobbyists can apparently team up to show legislators a good time, exceeding the $75 per-occurrence cap in the process. If two lobbyists take a lawmaker to dinner, for example, said public servant can apparently enjoy $150 worth of revelry and be within the law.
And perhaps the easiest way to influence lawmakers going forward is to send them on an all-expenses-paid trip — as long as it’s within U.S. borders. Make a connection to “official duties” and you can pack legislators, staff and spouses off on a journey not subject to that pesky $75 cap.
In another amazing prospect, although it’s not fully clear at this point, lawyers may end up being able to, in effect, lobby lawmakers on behalf of clients without having to either register as lobbyists or be subject to the $75 expense cap.
Georgia deserves better, and the Legislature must hold itself to a higher standard. Lawmakers who earlier led honorable steps toward this cause must make sure that ethics gets another hearing in 2014 – early on in the session. The matter should be settled long before the final week of lawmaking. Having a good bill passed by both chambers before Crossover Day is a good goal. There was no justifiable reason why slapdash, last-second, basement-room dickering should have been employed this year. Not when the House passed its bill more than a month ago.
Ethics, of all things, deserves a deliberate, open process worthy of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ old adage that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” That was not the case. As a result, what we ended up with, frankly, stinks.
HB 142, as passed, is nowhere near a solution to the problems we’ve seen here. It leaves too large an opening to continue much of the Capitol’s cherished business-as-usual antics.
In a sign of that recognition, elected officials signaled that the issue was not nearly settled. They’re correct.
Their last-minute safeguarding of too many Old Guard interests is not acceptable. Georgia should demand better next year.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.