The problem with Georgia’s ethics laws isn’t that they could and should be stricter, although that’s true. No, the real problem is that too many lawmakers act as if the law is the only word on what is and isn’t ethical.
Witness the upgraded frequent flier status, worth thousands of dollars, that eight legislative leaders accepted last year from Delta Air Lines. (While all are Republicans, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, also got the perk.)
These gifts of platinum or gold Delta Medallion status, reported in March by the AJC and revisited this week by Richard Belcher of Channel 2 Action News, were made under the guise of “campaign contributions.”
Just how the gifts contributed to anyone’s election campaign is unclear. Medallion status allows for an upgrade to first class, not free travel.
And there’s the tiny detail that not one of Georgia’s 236 legislators represents a district with more than one airport served by Delta. Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams can’t fly Delta between Hazlehurst and Ludowici, and the company offers no route allowing Speaker David Ralston to cover the 15 miles between Blue Ridge and Ellijay by air.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who’s elected statewide, is the only exception to that geographic limitation. But his 2010 campaign didn’t report any purchases of Delta tickets.
The upgrades are properly understood as gifts — lobbying gifts — from a company seeking an extension of the partial exemption on sales tax for jet fuel it’s enjoyed since 2005. Delta got just that when HB 322 was passed this spring, saving the company tens of millions of dollars.
No wonder it passed: Besides Ralston, Delta contributed to Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal and House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, who sponsored HB 322. On the Senate side, it wasn’t only Cagle and Williams but Majority Leader Chip Rogers and Ronnie Chance, a floor leader for the Deal administration.
Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Mullis also received the perk, but Delta did report that one as a lobbying expense.
The jet fuel exemption is debatable, at best, as public policy. Proponents say it’s necessary to protect jobs.
I consider it an unfair corporate giveaway: Delta’s the only airline that qualifies for it, under the law’s tailor-made requirements. It’s also contrary, and counterproductive, to the stated Republican goal of tax reform that eliminates loopholes and exemptions in exchange for lower rates.
Either way, it is outrageous for elected officials to accept an expensive perk from a company seeking favorable treatment from them.
For some reason, this story got my goat more than the typical campaign-money revelation. Maybe it’s the obviously false pretext that these gifts were election-related.
More likely, it’s the reinforcement that our elected officials believe they deserve a cushier lifestyle than their constituents. Not because they can afford it, but just because they’ve been elected.
As Bob Irvin, former House minority leader and past chairman of Common Cause Georgia, told me, “This just ought to be stopped. It feeds the entitlement mentality of people in government. And while we’re fixing the entitlement problems for the country as a whole, we ought to be fixing it for government officials and staff, too.”
The Delta gifts don’t appear to be illegal under state ethics laws. It’s almost certainly not the first time a Georgia politician found himself flying first-class because of his office. And Delta definitely is not the only company that dangles perks in front of legislators.
But there is no obligation to say “yes.” And it really isn’t that hard to say “no.”
Even if that’s not spelled out in the law.
– By Kyle Wingfield