A common objection to certain ethics reforms, particularly a cap on gifts legislators receive from lobbyists, is that voters can judge for themselves if representatives cross the line.
House Speaker David Ralston used to argue thus against a gift cap. He reversed course and endorsed a total ban on gifts after voters in July’s primaries overwhelmingly rejected the no-limits status quo.
I think Ralston had it half-right before (the transparency of gift reports helps the public know who’s lobbying whom) and has it half-right now (transparency alone is insufficient, and a limit is necessary). I prefer a gift cap to a gift ban.
Once there’s a limit, it should be up to the voters to decide if a frequent gift recipient should serve in the Legislature. But serving in the leadership? That’s for legislators to decide — and to demonstrate their own ethical standards.
If you followed the news last week, you probably know where I’m going with this.
Last Tuesday, the AJC reported a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe of state Sen. Don Balfour. The Snellville Republican is one gift-laden lawmaker: In May, the AJC reported he received tickets to more than 120 events, valued at more than $22,000, over the past six years. But the gifts are only indirectly related to the case.
The GBI said it is investigating Balfour for filing false expense reports, seeking tax-funded reimbursement of mileage between his home and the Capitol on days he was out of the state. Balfour has already agreed to repay some $1,100 in mileage claims, as well as a $5,000 fine levied by the Senate Ethics Committee.
Here’s where the gift angle comes in: Balfour was known to have been out of town because lobbyists reported paying for his meals and lodging while he was gone. Transparency was crucial in this case.
Now, Balfour is not just any senator. He’s the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. That committee decides which pieces of legislation may go before the whole Senate. That role makes the committee very powerful, and its chairman one of the most powerful people under the Gold Dome.
The ethical question in Balfour’s case is not limited to false reporting. One of his other duties as Rules chair is to form a subcommittee to audit senators’ expense reports, including his own. He never did so.
The value Balfour places on being Rules chairman was evident in a fundraising email last month, as reported by PeachPundit.com (a campaign consultant did not return a phone call to confirm it). Balfour mentioned the role, then asked donors to consider giving at an “investment level” ranging from $250 to $2,500. The dollar figures aren’t as noteworthy as the word “investment,” which of course implies a possible return. I’m just brainstorming here, but maybe that return is knowing legislation you support has a better chance of making it to the Senate floor, while legislation you oppose stands to be stalled.
Gwinnett voters can decide in November whether to send the, ahem, gifted Balfour back to the Senate. But Senate leaders must decide whether to foist him, his “investors” and their priorities on the rest of the state by keeping him as Rules chairman.
They could decide congressional Republicans are right to limit how long one of their members can chair a particular committee. (Balfour has chaired Rules since 2003.) They could be more direct and decide Balfour is unfit to continue as chair. Or they could leave him in place.
Their decision will tell more about them than about Balfour.
– By Kyle Wingfield