“Ethics reform” bills should never be written in secret, at the last minute, behind closed doors, by those who have a lot to gain by gutting them.
Because when that happens, as it did this week in the Georgia Legislature, bad things happen. You get a bill that masquerades as reform but in reality changes little and in important ways makes things worse.
Let’s begin with the “attorney loophole.” In a last-minute change to House Bill 142 — a change that had not been included in previous House or Senate versions of the bill — legislators in effect exempted attorneys from the state’s lobbyist disclosure and ethics law. Because the language was changed in secret, we don’t know who is responsible for it. But we do know that it creates a massive loophole in the law, because some of the most influential people lobbying our elected officials have law degrees.
In fact, the bill itself is evidence of that influence. As a result of the change they apparently sought, attorney/lobbyists do not have to abide by the much-ballyhooed $75 spending limit. Even worse, attorney/lobbyists are exempted from even having to disclose their lobbying expenditures to the public.
Here’s another nice little goody tucked into the bill:
Back in 2011, shortly after legislators gave Delta Air Lines an extension of a sales-tax exemption worth some $30 million, it was discovered that the airline had given top state officials a free upgrade to platinum or gold flying status. Delta officially valued those upgrades at a value of $1,588 to $2,831, but consumer advocate Clark Howard said at the time that they were actually worth more like $10,000 to $15,000.
House Speaker David Ralston, the chief sponsor of HB 142, was one of those who received the benefit. State Sen. Jeff Mullis, who led Senate negotiators on the ethics bill, was another beneficiary. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was a third. Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance was a fourth.
Under the “ethics reform” of HB 142, such upgrades will be exempted from the $75 gift cap. Even worse, the bill specifically states that such upgrades no longer even have to be reported.
You want another such outrage?
One of the prime drivers of ethics reform was public anger at legislators and their spouses being wined, dined and put up in fancy resorts by lobbyists and special interest groups, often at pricetags of $1,000 or more. Rather than try to address that problem or put controls on it, HB 142 explicitly legitimizes it.
The result is rather hilarious, if by hilarious you mean downright ridiculous. If this bill becomes law, a (non-attorney) lobbyist will be forbidden to spend more than $75 on a dinner for a legislator in Atlanta. However, if that same lobbyist pays to fly that same legislator — and his or her spouse, and his or her staff member(s) — to a resort somewhere for an “educational, informational, charitable, or civic meetings or conference”, the $75 limit no longer applies.
In fact, suddenly there is no limit whatsoever.
Then there’s the question of how this $75 cap will really work. It has been sold to Georgia voters as a limit on what can be spent on a legislator at any one event, occasion or gift purchase. However, in language added to the bill in secret, last-minute negotiations, the cap is defined as a $75 expenditure per gift “from any individual lobbyist.”
That language wasn’t added by accident. Again, somebody put it there, and they did so for a reason. As a result of the change, if you have two individual lobbyists, the gift limit jumps to $150. With three, it’s $225.
Gov. Nathan Deal ought to veto this bill and force legislators to do it again, this time in the open.
– Jay Bookman