For the last year or so, House Speaker David Ralston has publicly sneered at suggestions that the Georgia Legislature adopt limits on how much lobbyists are allowed to spend wooing legislators.
A proposed $100 cap on lobbyist expenditures was nothing more than “a gimmick,” Ralston has said repeatedly. In his mind, any effort to impose bans or limits on lobbyist gifts would simply drive such spending underground, where it would continue to be done illegally.
In fact, he argued, the whole concept of gift bans or limitations was an invention of “media elites and liberal special interest groups.”
“You can’t be united as a party and be in bed with groups like Common Cause and Georgia Watch,” he said last spring at the state GOP convention, managing to overlook strong tea party support for gift limits. “These are very liberal groups that have no interest in seeing a Republican agenda succeed.”
But in recent days, something rather remarkable has happened. The man who once cast scorn on the idea of restricting lobbyist gifts now says that he intends to do more than limit them to $100. He wants to ban them altogether.
Ralston has pledged to put together an informal legislative study committee, with the intention of passing such an outright ban when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
There are two ways to think about this rather startling transformation. The first and most obvious is to take Ralston at his word that he believes a total gift ban is an idea whose time has come. If so, there are compelling grounds for Ralston reaching that conclusion. Senate leaders had already embraced the idea of a $100 gift limit, leaving the House isolated in its opposition. Furthermore, advisory questions on the Democratic and Republican primary ballots last month confirmed overwhelming public support for the concept.
Perhaps even more important, the overwhelming rejection of the T-SPLOST in metro Atlanta and elsewhere revealed a crippling lack of trust between elected officials in Georgia and those who put them into office. If a total gift ban from lobbyists can begin to restore that necessary trust, it would be a very good thing.
However, there’s also a more cynical, less encouraging interpretation.
Maybe I’ve got this wrong, but Ralston has never struck me as the type of man likely to undergo a sudden religious conversion on such matters. He has always come across as a more measured, careful sort. He also recognizes the trap in which his Republican counterparts in the Senate have tried to place him and his fellow House members. By endorsing the $100 gift limit, Senate leaders could claim the moral high ground while remaining confident that it would never pass, and that Ralston would take the political heat for killing it.
With his surprise announcement in favor of a total ban on gifts, Ralston has reversed the situation, leaving the Senate to play the role of spoilsport. “You want ethics reform, I’ll give you more ethics reform than you can handle,” he seems to be saying, at least if the more cynical interpretation is correct.
It is precisely the type of political gambit that longtime Democratic Speaker Tom Murphy could and did employ in his own battles with the state Senate of his day. And whatever their partisan differences, in many ways Ralston emulates the Murphy leadership pattern.
So which version of the truth is more likely?
We may not get an inkling of Ralston’s true intentions until his proposed legislation is unveiled. If written in good faith, it will offer a realistic, workable approach to badly needed ethics reform in Georgia, including creation of an independent, well-funded ethics commission. If written as political grandstanding, it will either contain so many loopholes as to be worthless or it will be so punitive and harsh that it will frighten off political support.
But the only test that will matter is what, if anything, is signed into law. After all this posturing, a failure to produce serious ethics reform in the next legislative session could only compound and further justify Georgians’ lack of faith in their so-called “public servants.”
– Jay Bookman