NOTE: A few weeks ago, my conservative colleague Kyle Wingfield and I were discussing the need to strengthen Georgia’s ethics laws, which put no limit on the value of gifts from lobbyists to legislators and make it difficult to hold state officials to modern standards of conduct.
We agreed that it’s an issue in which ideology should play no role and that offers common ground across the political spectrum. So we decided to adopt passage of a tougher ethics law as a joint project for this legislative session. We kick off that effort this week with columns in the Sunday AJC. (Kyle’s has been posted on his blog here.) As my column below explains, the key to success is voters getting involved and demanding to be heard.
According to an AJC poll released a week ago, 72 percent of registered voters in Georgia believe there ought to be a legal limit on the value of gifts that lobbyists can give those whom we elect to represent us in the General Assembly.
Many state legislators don’t buy that claim. House Speaker David Ralston and others argue that they’ve seen no evidence of such support, and believe the public is satisfied with a system that allows lobbyists to shower politicians with gifts of unlimited value as long as those gifts are reported.
For now, Ralston and his colleagues are right. Poll numbers are merely that — mute numbers on a page. Politicians respond to poll numbers only to the degree that they believe voters will act on them. If voters expect to be heard, they first have to speak.
In the speaker’s case, he accepted a $17,000 European vacation for himself and his family– all paid for by lobbyists — and aside from some bad publicity he has paid no political price for it. So if voters care, he’s been shown no evidence of that.
That has to change.
This year, the nonpartisan good-government groups Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have joined forces with the Tea Party movement and Georgia Watch to push a package of ethics reforms in Georgia that would include a $100 limit on the value of gifts to state elected officials. The goals also include restoring the authority and independence of the agency once known as the state Ethics Commission, which has been gutted by state officials unhappy with anybody looking over their shoulder.
Every one of our neighboring states — Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida — has adopted either outright bans on lobbyist gifts or limits that are much more strict than the proposed limit of $100 in Georgia. In other words, this is not some radical scheme; if adopted, we would still have the most generous gift limit in the region.
Bucking considerable pressure from their colleagues, legislators in both the House and Senate have agreed to champion a reform package. State Rep. Tommy Smith, a Republican from a rural district in southeast Georgia, said Thursday that he wants to help “make Georgia a state where the people out there who elect us have more influence than these lobbyists that walk the floor everyday.”
“We didn’t have a revolution so the special interests could run the government,” Smith said. “We had a revolution so people could run the government.”
Smith is chairman of the State Planning and Community Affairs Committee in the House, a post that Ralston can strip from him should he choose to do so. But Smith is nonetheless willing to take risk because he believes it’s important that legislators have “a wholesome and a correct fear of the people who sent us here.”
Right now, that fear does not exist. As one small measure of the problem, lobbyists spent more than $35,000 last year just taking state officials on golf outings. If you think that kind of behavior poses a problem, you need to say so.
Otherwise, your silence is interpreted as your permission.
– Jay Bookman