It took public pressure from GOP and Democratic primary voters and a few years of cajoling (and, yes, lobbying), but the ethics reform package unveiled today by Speaker David Ralston represents a significant step toward better governance in Georgia.
I’ve given the two bills Ralston introduced a once-over, and my initial impression is that they are a serious effort toward addressing public concerns about special interests’ inordinate influence over the lawmaking process. The package includes:
The rule-making piece is important; better funding to upgrade the commission’s unreliable technology would also be very helpful and may yet come through the budget process. The additional disclosure requirements for campaign contributions made on the eve of the session is a pleasant surprise.
Any criticisms of the package are likely to focus on two areas. First, the exceptions to the gift ban for some travel expenses “that directly relate to the official duties of that public officer or the office of that public officer,” as well as for food and beverages if they are provided to all members of the General Assembly, the House, the Senate, party caucuses, or standing committees and subcommittees.
The travel exception must be scrutinized as this bill advances — and, if it’s passed, policed aggressively by the ethics commission — to ensure it’s not abused. It is worth noting that the exception does not apply to recreational activities: no sports or concert tickets, no hunting or greens fees. The exception for food and beverages arguably is a big one: It’s reasonable in my view not to outlaw, say, a catered reception put on by a local chamber of commerce. But letting a company take all the members of a relevant committee to Bone’s? On the other hand, given that there should be far fewer lobbyist gifts reported, those kinds of gifts will stand out in reports even more than now — so maybe public scrutiny of them will suffice. Maybe.
Second, the broader definition of the word “lobbyist” is bound to strike some people as an attempt to require the registration (including a $300 fee) of anyone who walks into the Capitol during the legislative session. I don’t think that was the intent: There are some folks around the Capitol who ought to qualify as lobbyists but who manage to go unregistered. But it’s worth thinking about which kinds of people might be ensnared, intentionally or not, by that broader definition.
On the whole, and as someone who has criticized repeatedly the lack of legislative action on this issue, I think this is a very positive step forward by Ralston and the other House leaders. The key now will be seeing that the House and Senate agree on a package of reforms without watering it down or engaging in a game of one-upmanship designed to burnish each chamber’s ethics-reform credentials without actually getting a bill passed.
– By Kyle Wingfield