The comprehensive ethics reform promised by legislative leaders back in January — reform that would weaken the seductive grip of special-interest lobbyists on our elected leaders — never materialized.
You are no doubt surprised by that fact.
Oh, legislators did pass a bill last week that they labeled “ethics reform.” House Speaker David Ralston, whose staff wrote the bill behind closed doors, would have you believe that the measure accomplishes all it was intended to accomplish. Sadly, that may be true.
“We had to respond to some problems we had in a very forceful way. This bill does that,” Ralston said last week while urging his colleagues to support the bill. “We had to change some of the ways we did business in this House, and we’ve done that. This bill gets it right.”
In reality, the bill changes little in the way the House does business. For example, it places no limit on how much lobbyists can spend courting their friends in elective office. Three-hundred-dollar meals, $200 golf rounds, free tickets to the Masters and other sporting events — it’s all still legal.
The bill also places no restrictions on the revolving door that allows legislators and legislative staff to transition from public employment to lobbying on behalf of special interests.
That’s not to say the bill is useless. Once signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue, the bill will increase the number of disclosure reports that lobbyists must file and also increases financial penalties for those who file late or don’t file at all.
It also requires well-funded candidates for municipal and county offices to disclose contributions and expenses electronically to the state Ethics Commission, which is grandly renamed “The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.”
After harsh criticism, legislators agreed to drop language from an earlier version of the bill that would have let lobbyists pay for meals, lodging and transportation for officials at resort meetings and conventions without disclosing those benefits to voters. According to Ralston, the provision was withdrawn because it was never meant to harm transparency.
That would be easier to buy if House leaders hadn’t replaced that provision with a more subtle loophole that accomplishes much the same thing. Under the bill as passed, legislators and other state officials can be ferried on corporate jets or commercial flights without it being reported as long as the trip is neither arranged by nor includes a lobbyist.
To drive the point home, the bill states explicitly that the “transparency commission” has no power to require additional disclosures.
In an apparent swat at the pesky “do-gooder” contingent at the Capitol, the bill also requires lobbyists for charitable and non-profit organizations to pay the same $300 registration fee as lobbyists for corporations, a step that will surely reduce the number of those advocating for charitable causes.
The bill does set up a process for handling sexual harassment cases within the Legislature. But even there, the bill says the House and Senate ethics committees “may” — not “shall” but “may” — “report suspected violations of law to the appropriate law enforcement authority.”
Had the bill been handled through the normal committee process, such provisions would have invited questions that legislative leaders would not want to answer. That’s why a bill supposedly devoted to transparency was written in secret and passed hastily, without much opportunity for public input.
That in itself is evidence that the larger problem remains.