According to leaders of the Georgia House, the ethics-reform plan that their chamber passed overwhelmingly last month is an achievement of historic proportions. In fact, it “represents without overstatement or understatement the most ambitious change in ethics laws in modern times,” as state Rep. Rich Golick described the plan to a Senate committee this week.
It’s fair to say that Senate leaders were not impressed.
One day after Golick’s presentation, senators proceeded to dump most of the House plan and replace it with their own, very different plan. This was described by one senator as “an historic ethics proposal with the potential to change the culture” of state government.
Setting aside their alleged historic nature, the approaches championed by the two chambers have little in common. The House has passed what it claims to be a total ban on lobbyist expenditures, although as senators like to point out, that “ban” includes significant loopholes. According to Golick, those loopholes are needed to accommodate “ordinary and customary practice” in the Legislature.
The Senate has responded with a bill that closes those loopholes, for example by banning lobbyist expenditures on legislative family members and staff. But instead of banning lobbyist gifts to legislators, it merely caps their value at $100 a pop, leading House Speaker David Ralston to call it “more of a visor than a cap.” As Ralston has also accurately pointed out, the Senate plan allows legislators to accept an unlimited number of those $100 gifts, including several a day should they wish to do so.
Here’s what the situation looks like:
— Either plan is better than the current system, which contains no limits on lobbyist giving whatsoever. The voters of Georgia have made it clear that they are no longer willing to tolerate such lax laws or the political culture they create.
— Neither plan is as ambitious as its supporters claim. Both would have to be tightened considerably before the high praise of their authors could be justified, and it’s far from certain that is going to happen.
— At some point very soon, leaders of the House and Senate are going to have to sit down to try to reconcile their very different approaches into a single piece of legislation that both can support. The process won’t be easy or quick. Both chambers have significant pride of authorship, and are likely to balk at publicly backing down and accepting the other body’s plan.
And with the legislative schedule calling for the session to end Thursday, March 27, time is running out.
The best compromise might be a plan that drops the Senate’s $100-per-item limit to a more reasonable $50, which would still allow purchase of a lunch or reasonable dinner by a lobbyist looking for an ear to bend. It’s not a ban, but it’s not a $100 cap either. In other words, it would be a victory for ethics reform, while allowing neither chamber to claim victory over the other. It’s also important that loopholes in both approaches be tightened.
However, it is also all too plausible that no such compromise is reached in the hustle and bustle of the session’s last days, leaving current law in place. If that’s the outcome, leaders in the House and Senate will surely attempt to blame each other for that failure. After all this posturing and talk of historic achievement, though, I have a hard time believing that voters will have any patience with either side should that happen.
– Jay Bookman