If serious ethics reform passes the Georgia Legislature this year, House Speaker David Ralston will have played a major role from beginning to end.
His biggest contribution probably came in helping to inspire the public crusade that has pushed the issue to such prominence in the first place. If he had not taken his family on a $17,000 holiday trip to Europe at lobbyist expense, and if he had not responded to criticism by shrugging it off as unimportant, it is unlikely that the ethics issue would have gained so much traction. The speaker is a smart guy who is widely respected, but that trip and his handling of its aftermath was a major blunder. He turned himself into a symbol of the type of political entitlement that angers voters and leads them to distrust government.
That distrust has become a major problem, as evidenced by an AJC poll published last week. It found that a major reason for metro Atlanta’s rejection of last summer’s T-SPLOST was lack of faith in the integrity of elected officials and a fear that they serve special interests rather than the public. That same lack of faith will make it difficult for elected leaders to build support for a public contribution to a proposed new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons.
Earlier this year, however, Ralston performed a startling about-face. After steadfastly rejecting any limitation on lobbyist gifts to legislators, the speaker suddenly embraced an outright ban on such gifts. Whether that reflects an honest if rather swift change of heart will be determined over the next few months.
In the state Senate, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has been a vocal supporter of ethics reform, even if that rhetorical support has seldom translated into action. The new leadership team elected in the Senate has also expressed support for such reform, although the speaker’s call for a total gift ban rather than a limit on gift value may test that commitment.
One early test of how seriously the Senate leadership takes ethics will be its handling of Senate Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour, one of the most powerful figures in the Capitol. Last year, Balfour kept ethics legislation bottled up in his committee, refusing to let it come to the Senate floor for a vote. More importantly, in August the Senate Ethics Committee fined Balfour $5,000 for filing a series of false expense reports with the state, and a criminal investigation launched by the GBI continues.
Under those circumstances, allowing Balfour to return as chair of the Rules Committee would suggest that the Senate’s new leadership is no more serious about ethics reform than were its predecessors.
However, the most important test of legislative commitment to ethics reform and the rebuilding of public trust will be its handling of what was once known as the Georgia Ethics Commission. Political leaders in this state have never tolerated a truly independent ethics commission, but legislative attacks on the agency in recent years have stripped it of what little independence and authority it once enjoyed. They even stripped the word “ethics” from its title.
The Legislature’s most prominent ethics champion, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee a certain level of funding for the ethics commission. In the past, legislators unhappy with commission rulings have “disciplined” it by slashing funding or positions. McKoon’s proposal would be an important step in insulating the agency from such pressures and restoring public confidence in government.
– Jay Bookman