The story of the year in metro Atlanta almost certainly was voters’ rejection of the $7.2 billion transportation sales tax. That’s true not only because the result was so lopsided in a region famous for its traffic congestion and desperate for relief, but because the clear message was that voters torched the T-SPLOST due to a lack of trust in government.
But what does “lack of trust” mean in practice?
Happily, an opinion poll commissioned for, and reported last Sunday by, the AJC translated the public’s lack of trust into numbers. It suggests ethics reform is key if the Legislature is to shore up the trust deficit.
Sixty percent of those polled last month, in the same 10 metro Atlanta counties that voted down the T-SPLOST in July, said they believe “people in the government waste a lot of money we pay in taxes.” The same percentage said “not many” or “hardly any” of the folks in government are honest.
That’s 60 percent who think government wastes money and 60 percent who think people in government tend not to be honest. The “no” vote in the T-SPLOST vote was a remarkably similar 63 percent.
That said, wastefulness and honesty are not equally problematic in the public’s mind.
When asked what would restore their trust in government, about a quarter of poll respondents suggested something along the lines of using existing funds more efficiently or making real progress toward solving transportation problems.
But almost twice as many – 49 percent of those polled — said “restore honesty,” “more accountability,” “more transparency,” or “less spending on special interests/connected people.”
Spending more on transportation isn’t going to be an option anytime soon: Gov. Nathan Deal last week warned legislators there will be precious little money in this year’s budget for new initiatives.
More abundant in 2013 will be ethics legislation.
On Wednesday evening, Sens. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and Steve Henson, D-Tucker, briefed supporters of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform about some possible bills in next year’s legislative session. They include, yes, the $100 limit on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators that I and many others have promoted for some time. But others may be even more important.
McKoon has already prefiled two constitutional amendments. One dedicates a set percentage of the general budget to the state ethics commission, so that investigated lawmakers can’t retaliate by cutting the agency’s funding. The other creates such new tools for rooting out corruption as a statewide grand jury, an idea that’s also been kicked around for a few years.
Other bills may address such issues as the “revolving door” through which some state workers pass on their way to working for the companies they used to regulate; the lack of personal financial disclosures for some members of state boards and commissions whose conflicts of interest currently aren’t aired publicly; the lack of a sunshine law for legislative records; and various problems with the filing system for disclosures already required by law.
These reforms might not have obvious ties to transportation policy. Public sentiment is quite clear, though, that a general perception of impropriety among public officials is crimping our government’s ability to perform such basic functions as improving transportation infrastructure.
That’s one more reason ethics reformers need to get a move on.
– By Kyle Wingfield