The Ghost of Speakers Past still stalks the Gold Dome.
That statement will ring oddly for some denizens of the Georgia Capitol. The 2010 session, despite grim budget numbers, has in many ways been a modern Era of Good Feelings. And much credit flows to the present speaker, David Ralston.
“He has just been a breath of fresh air,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said in an interview last week. “He’s very measured, he’s tempered, he’s a person that wants to build consensus, wants to see the two branches of government, the legislative and executive side, work very well together. He has been true to his word and I just can’t tell you what a difference that has made.”
Suffice it to say, neither Cagle nor many others offered such hosannas for Ralston’s turf-guarding predecessor, Glenn Richardson. And Cagle is not alone in praising the new speaker this way. Ralston has changed the tone, building interinstitutional trust.
Yet the story of Richardson’s demise — a past affair with a lobbyist who had multimillion-dollar business before him, revealed on television last fall by his ex-wife — shook the public’s trust. Ethics reform was demanded, and promised.
We’re about to find out how much reform we’ll actually get.
The first ethics bill to drop, HB 920, was sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, a close Ralston ally. Headlining the bill was a $100 limit on lobbyists’ gifts to officials, such as meals.
That idea was popular after the fall of Richardson, who in 2009 alone accepted more than $9,000 in meals, event tickets and golf outings. But arguably more important were restrictions on the ways in which money given to one campaign fund can be relayed to another.
Richardson, in a tradition pioneered by longtime Democratic Speaker Tom Murphy, routinely took in hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond what his own re-election campaign needed. He then redistributed much of it to friendly candidates or to the state party.
This is legal as long as the donor isn’t intentionally funneling money through one candidate to another to dodge contribution limits. But it adds power to the powerful and gives rebellious officials one more reason not to buck the leadership.
Individuals and companies should be allowed to donate to candidates of their choosing in most cases. But direct contributions are the most transparent.
A substitute for HB 920 is likely, and it’s unclear which elements of the original bill will remain intact. Both a gift limit and a cap on campaign-to-campaign transfers appear to be on the chopping block.
On the plus side, House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson wants to implement “immediate” disclosure of lobbyist gifts while the Legislature is in session, probably with a requirement to file reports within 48 to 72 hours. That would boost transparency.
The political rationale for treading cautiously, with less than eight months to go before Election Day, is understandable. But this is no time for lawmakers to lose their nerve.
Republicans tightened some ethics laws upon consolidating power in 2005, particularly for the personal financial disclosures that lawmakers must make. After that, the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity promoted Georgia to sixth place nationally, from 26th, in its rankings of state disclosure laws. (We now rank seventh, higher than our neighbors.)
Yet the picture is bigger than that, and there’s more work to do. As the first chapter on Republican rule of Georgia closes, with Richardson out and Gov. Sonny Perdue completing his second term, the party needs to maintain its resolve for reform.
The GOP promised to be different from Murphy’s imperial Democrats. To fulfill that vow and put the Richardson debacle firmly behind them, Republicans can’t stand still.