UPDATE at 3:42 p.m., Friday, May 18: The Georgia GOP’s executive committee voted to put a question about ethics reform on the July 31 primary ballot. No exact wording available yet, but the references to “unlimited spending” and a $100 cap sound promising.
A year ago, Georgia Republicans convening in Macon flashed an independent streak: They re-elected a grassroots favorite as state party chairman over the hand-picked candidate of new Gov. Nathan Deal. The message was that the party faithful would maintain a bit of separation between themselves and the man they worked to elect.
Tomorrow, party leaders have a chance to make a similar declaration of independence from the legislators they send to Atlanta in droves, over the matter of ethics reform.
Ethics reform went nowhere in this year’s legislative session, but it wasn’t for lack of effort by grassroots conservatives. Tea partyers allied with such groups as Common Cause to draft an ethics bill, recruited sponsors in both the House and Senate and lobbied each body’s leaders to let the measures proceed.
That last step is where the bills were killed — stashed in each chamber’s Rules Committee, never again to see the light of day. That did not, however, kill the activists’ spirits. On the contrary.
Multiple GOP districts last month voted to propose that a ballot question about ethics reform be put to voters in July’s Republican primary. This and other potential ballot questions will be weighed tomorrow as the party begins its annual two-day convention in Columbus.
A question about ethics reform is a slam dunk at the ballot box, if opinion polling is any sign. In a statewide poll before this year’s legislative session, 82 percent of self-identified Republicans said they supported a cap on gifts from lobbyists to legislators — the central plank in this year’s stymied ethics reform bills.
If that question is on the ballot, we’ll likely see two things happen. First, ethics will become a bigger topic in this year’s primary races. Second, it will be that much harder for Republican leaders in the Legislature to ignore the issue if their own voters endorsed reform.
But, as dear as ethics reform is to a number of Georgia Republicans, the question of the party’s independence from elected officials may be just as important for them.
It might not be apparent to those who see everything as either Republican or Democratic, but less-partisan Georgians are having a harder and harder time distinguishing the currently ruling Republicans from the perennially empowered Democrats they replaced. It’s a line I hear more and more from Georgians who don’t pledge allegiance to either side. They see this as a one-party state — the party of self- and special interests.
That is not entirely fair. But legislators do themselves no reputational favors when they refuse to draw a bright line between legitimate lobbying and practices that look like vote-buying to the average Georgian.
Look no further than this year’s “tax reform.” The measure was far weaker than bills that, a year earlier, were derided as “tax reform lite.” It represented little more than a shuffling of taxes around from more-favored activities to less-favored ones, rather than the broader, original promise to make the tax code flatter, simpler, lower — and, thereby, fairer.
You know, the taxation principles Republicans say they support.
Instead, the final bill was, more than anything, a kind of lifetime achievement award for some of this state’s longest-running lobbying efforts.
Some of the bill’s components are eminently defensible; I personally like the idea of exempting manufacturers from paying sales tax on energy, as all our neighboring states have done. But there is no getting around the fact that the bill’s winners read like a who’s who of the Capitol’s lobbyist corps.
Georgia’s grassroots Republicans spent years, some of them decades, making the case that their party would be different from, better than, the old Democratic guard that ran this state for 130 years. They should be ashamed by some of the things that haven’t changed since the reins of power changed hands. Many of them have told me they are.
In the age of super PACs, the continued usefulness of party infrastructure is not a given, at least not at the national level. One way the state party can remain relevant is to establish the culture and standards the elected officials who wear its label are expected to uphold.
The thrill of victory, after so many decades of defeat, led too many Georgia Republicans to look the other way for too long as too many of the people they elected failed to uphold those standards. Tomorrow is another chance to rein them back in.
– By Kyle Wingfield