It was such a harmless little non-partisan snowball at first. Hardly worth noticing, really.
But as it rolled ever so slowly down the hill, it began to grow a wee bit. “Seriously?” people began to ask themselves. “We let our legislators take unlimited gifts from lobbyists? ‘Unlimited’, as in ‘no limits’? And this is legal?”
Pushed by the Georgia tea party and the more liberal Common Cause, the snowball grew larger and gathered speed. When renegade members of the House and Senate defied their leadership and introduced bills limiting gifts to $100 or less, the momentum continued to build. And even though the Legislature disbanded with those bills going nowhere, it has since become clear that this snowball is not going to melt away in the heat of summer.
Quite the contrary.
At the insistence of the grassroots, leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties have agreed to put advisory questions on the primary ballot in July, asking voters whether they support the proposed gift limit. And everybody is pretty darn sure how those votes are going to come out.
In fact, shortly after the question was put on the GOP ballot, Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s presiding officer, all suddenly embraced a gift cap.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of support — a lot of support,” Cagle predicted.
The true tipping point, however, came when state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, signed a pledge sponsored by the tea party and Common Cause to support the gift cap. That was as out of character for Balfour as Kim Kardashian signing a chastity vow.
As chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, Balfour had helped to kill an ethics-reform bill just a couple of months earlier. Balfour has also been a most eager guest of lobbyists wanting to ply with him with sports tickets and other benefits, and on Friday the Senate Ethics Committee announced it had found “substantial evidence” that Balfour had been padding his state expense accounts.
It’s now clear that when the Legislature convenes in January, Senate leaders will be competing to see who gets credit for passing a strong ethics bill. The problem will come in the House, where Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge stubbornly refuses to even consider a gift limitation. That mulishness is putting members of his House caucus in a quandary.
In effect, Ralston is forcing them to choose between loyalty to him — the man who controls every aspect of their legislative lives, from office space to committee assignment to the fate of their bills to campaign funding — and loyalty to the people who elected them and who pay their salaries.
So far, they have chosen to side with Ralston. It’s telling that of the 60 legislative candidates who have signed the pledge in support of reform, only one — Mark Hatfield of Waycross — is a returning Republican member of the House. Every other returning GOP House member is following Ralston’s orders and defying public opinion.
In stark contrast, 20 of those who signed the pledge are Republicans who are seeking election to the House for the first time. If a significant portion of those 20 get elected, as seems likely, the snowball will gain even more momentum. We may then see what happens when the irresistible snowball collides with the unmovable mountain man.
– Jay Bookman