Ralston’s ethics proposal would be a significant step forward

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:

  • an outright ban on lobbyist gifts to all elected public officials in Georgia, at both the state and local levels of government, with only a couple of relatively narrow exceptions (more on those later);
  • a broader definition of “lobbyist” to require registration of more people who seek to influence lawmakers;
  • the restoration of the state ethics commission’s rule-making authority, which is critical if enforcement of ethics laws are to have any teeth;
  • the elimination of filing requirements for local elected officials who raise or spend less than $2,500 for their campaigns, a move designed to lessen the backlog at the resource-poor ethics commission (but no firm pledge to increase the commission’s budget);
  • a provision to discourage “gotcha” ethics complaints by one campaign against another by requiring anyone who files an ethics complaint to state whether they are acting on any other person’s behalf, with false statements punishable by law; and
  • a requirement for campaign contributions made between Jan. 1 and the beginning of a legislative session to be reported within five business days of the session’s opening — currently, any campaign contribution made after Dec. 31 does not have to be reported until July (contributions cannot be made during the session).

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

Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter

105 comments Add your comment

Dumb and Dumber

January 29th, 2013
5:25 pm

Getting the Georgia House and Senate to even agree on how to spell “ethics” would be a significant step forward. Actually passing a bill that passes the laugh test and then then funding an independent ethics watchdog would be nothing short of amazing.

Dare we hope?

Jefferson

January 29th, 2013
5:30 pm

They should have a take nothing approach. This seems like a step in the right direction. Bone’s should require better customers than the lawmakers.

Rafe Hollister preparing for an Obamanist America

January 29th, 2013
5:36 pm

Sounds good, but doesn’t all ethics reform. We later learn what the built in cracks allow. Ethics legislation is never an end to unethical behavior, that requires ethical people, but if it gets us higher on the mythical list of ethical state governments that would be nice.

The Libs love to point out those studies that show Georgia State Government as unethical, even though the studies rank ethics legislation/rules rather than unethical behavior. So, good for Mr. Ralston, if he helps improve the appearance of propriety.

Road Scholar

January 29th, 2013
5:43 pm

Good article, Kyle. As for gifts , also exclude the elected officials wife and family members. No pass throughs!

What are the penalties for violating this?

As for trips, have the head of the senate/house approve the travel before hand. These are not spur of the moment trips. When I worked, I had to get prior approval of the state approving my non regular travel. Why not them?

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
5:50 pm

Can you say PAYGO?

Oh yeah, we’re talking about Republicans, they’ll do what they say, never mind.

Kyle Wingfield

January 29th, 2013
5:54 pm

I get the sense that the broader definition of “lobbyist” is really ticking off a number of the very same people who have been pushing for these reforms. As I indicated in the OP, we need to have clarity about exactly who would and wouldn’t be affected by the broader definition — and it it’s too broad, the definition needs to be adjusted. There’s no need to ensnare every individual citizen who shows up at the Capitol to petition his or her government — and no excuse for any provision that effectively does so.

Hillbilly D

January 29th, 2013
6:01 pm

Ralston is smarter than people think he is. He knows broading the definition of “lobbyist” is what will get a lot of attention and it’ll serve as a smoke screen for behind the scenes dealing. Ralston knows the best defense is a good offense and the way to get what he wants is to up the ante. Pretty good poker move.

I’ll be surprised if anything more than a feel good bill gets passed, if even that does, before it’s all said and done. I’ve seen this same scenario, many times before. The devil is always in the details. Doesn’t matter what they pass, unless they enforce it, which they haven’t in my lifetime.

Dave

January 29th, 2013
6:05 pm

First, sounds good if Ralston really means what he says. I didn’t think anyone over there was capable of actual reform. Second, as to who is a lobbyist, how about anyone that’s getting paid as a definition?

Kyle Wingfield

January 29th, 2013
6:08 pm

Hillbilly @ 6:01: If that’s all that’s going on here, then you’re right about the poker move. But until it becomes clear that the bad provisions are non-negotiable from Ralston’s point of view, I’ll consider them no different from bad provisions of other bills that get changed during the legislative process. That is, after all, why we don’t let a single person write a bill and make it law without letting other people scrutinize and improve it.

But if those bad provisions are non-negotiable, then those who think the entire thing is an elaborate ruse or seeks to punish some political enemies may have a point.

Hillbilly D

January 29th, 2013
6:10 pm

Kyle

Fair enough but like I said, this sort of thing has been going on for the last 30 or so years. I’ve got to see results before I believe anything. Some of us are more familiar with Ralston than others, too.

Kyle Wingfield

January 29th, 2013
6:12 pm

Dave @ 6:05: Income is part of the current definition; it would be removed under the new, broader definition.

The question, I think, is this one: Is the broader definition an attempt to include some people the public would probably consider a lobbyist but who aren’t registered, or is it an attempt to discourage ordinary citizens from coming and speaking their minds? If it’s the former, then I’d have to think the new definition could be refined to avoid unintended problems. If it’s the latter, then you’d have to question the motives of those who want that part in the bill.

@@

January 29th, 2013
6:12 pm

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 mean to sound cynical, but what’s to stop some bag man from meeting some legislator(s) in a dark alley somewhere?

Most of the influence peddling in Clayton County has always been done off-site and out-a-sight.

Centrist

January 29th, 2013
6:44 pm

Certainly better than anything that has been around for before. Past loopholes have had aircraft carriers sailed through, so now only yachts will fit.

I give credit to the majority party who enjoy most of the current lobbying benefits for limiting them. Further tightening of the travel, food, and beverage benefits will certainly be needed.

Serious Robuck

January 29th, 2013
6:51 pm

Republicans generally oppose anything Obama supports. Period.

I’m a liberal Georgia Democrat and as a corollary, I’m very skeptical of anything David Ralston might offer as any sort of step forward. I’ll be very happy to be proved wrong, but I don’t trust Ralston and his odious, corrupt crowd of thugs to do right, ever.

saywhat?

January 29th, 2013
6:57 pm

“The key now will be seeing that the House and Senate agree on” (1) “a package of reforms without watering it down or” (2) “engaging in a game of one-upmanship designed to burnish each chamber’s ethics-reform credentials without actually getting a bill passed.”
————————————————–
My bet is on number two. How ironicly delicious.

saywhat?

January 29th, 2013
6:58 pm

oops, “ironically”

Matz

January 29th, 2013
7:01 pm

As citizens of Georgia, we have every right to show up at the Capitol and “lobby” our representatives. Many of us consider it a duty. If more people paid attention to what these crooks are actually doing down there, they might actually do something useful for a change, instead of grandstanding on non-issues and slipping gravy to each other in back-room deals during closed-door “committee” meetings. I challenge each of you to spend a day down there watching and listening, and if you’re concerned about an issue, ask your legislator to come out and speak with you. They DO that (unless they’re gutless little chickensquirts).

As for the non-citizens (like that Norquist creep), outside organizations (funded by those Koch creeps who don’t live here) and those that represent fringe special interests, yes they should register. Those fringe special interest groups get way more attention than you or I because they lurk, grease, bully, bribe, and threaten. If you’re not there too, witnessing this nonsense and calling them out on it, what incentives do our “representatives” have to conduct themselves with integrity? It’s not like it comes naturally to them!

Georgia , The "New Mississippi"

January 29th, 2013
7:02 pm

These GOP Johnny Reb legislators never voluntarily do what they know is right. It is an inbred lack of basic human morals passed on from one generation to the next.

saywhat?

January 29th, 2013
7:02 pm

When one is 12 inches below the surface in a pool filled with feces, urine, and the bloated dead bodies of unidentifiable animals, lowering the level of the pool by 6 inches, while technically “progress”, doesn’t really make much of a practical difference.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
7:04 pm

This will be the first thing the dummycrats strike down once they move in enough illegal aliens and win some elections in Georgia. In about hunnerd years or so.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
7:11 pm

Well, maybe not “shock,” since the new president of CNN Worldwide has made no secret of his intention to shake up the ratings-challenged cable network from top to bottom.

Arranging the anchor desks on the Titanic, glug, glug, glug.

Water’s cold ain’t it?

Michael H. Smith

January 29th, 2013
7:11 pm

•a broader definition of “lobbyist” to require registration of more people who seek to influence lawmakers;

The unintended consequences may be the fees for registration being equally as broad as the definition.
I hope a difference in fees charged for registration is made between those for “professional lobbyists”and those for your average “non-business affiliated individual citizen activist”.

As always the devil is in the details and I remain unconvinced that this bill if it becomes law, will stop corrupt people from accepting what can been seen by many as bribes.

@@

January 29th, 2013
7:11 pm

Okay, this was funny. Among Obama’s proposal on immigration reform:

■Families headed by same-sex couples are treated as other families: The White House’s proposal “treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner.” Republicans on the Gang of Eight have treated this issue as unimportant. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said same-sex couples are “not of paramount importance,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked sarcastically, “Why don’t we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out?”

I’ve never known Lindsey Graham to have a sense of humor.

Hillbilly D

January 29th, 2013
7:15 pm

These GOP Johnny Reb legislators never voluntarily do what they know is right.

When did Tom Murphy ever let any ethics legislation pass? This isn’t anything new or the domain of either party. It’s what results of a one party state, which we’ve had for over 150 years.

saywhat?

January 29th, 2013
7:17 pm

Silly @@, Lindsey was just deflecting from the fact that he is really gay. Gay people have wonderful senses of humor.Its why we call them gay.

Hillbilly D

January 29th, 2013
7:17 pm

@@

Saw your comments in the other thread. I’m puzzled as to what use you have for dead rodents. (IWH)

Michael H. Smith

January 29th, 2013
7:26 pm

It really isn’t funny @@. This little tyrant has no authority to send congress a bill as he stated he intents to do. In fact, immigration is out of bound for the executive branch of our government. Immigration is an area germane only to Congress. Obama truly wants to sabotage any righteous immigration law.

For the record, I listened to Marco Rubio today and I can say with no hesitation that I am in lockstep with Senator Rubio’s immigration views and positions. He has immigration law as close to perfect as it will ever be written.

Obama should shut up, stay out of this debate, let the Congress write the law, go play golf and sign the bill when it reaches him like a real President would.

@@

January 29th, 2013
7:27 pm

Off-topic.

I was reading an article yesterday where two lesbians had used sperm donated by a guy who advertised on Craigslist. The insemination was done at home with some kit that’s made available.

Anyhoo, the women parted company. The custodial parent filed for welfare. Upon review, the state discovered the paternity of the child and went after the guy for child support.

Moral of the story? Don’t spill your seed on Craigslist.

Life can get complicated.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
7:28 pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday declined to voice support for Democratic legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

hairy must have been body snatched by the NRA!

Quick, let’s get some tax cut legislation out of committee.

Michael H. Smith

January 29th, 2013
7:32 pm

Nah, old Harry remembers what happened the last time his party past a gun ban.
Harry may be a lot of things but he ain’t altogether politically stupid or politically suicidal.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
7:33 pm

MHS – There is another ajc blog up that has obozo has the champion border patrol agent of the world and, get this, just itching to check papers and deport illegals.

Where would the dummycrats be without The Lie?

@@

January 29th, 2013
7:34 pm

Michael:

He has immigration law as close to perfect as it will ever be written.

Obama should shut up, stay out of this debate, let the Congress write the law, go play golf and sign the bill when it reaches him like a real President would.

I agree.

Obama’s always playing to an audience. Graham was mocking his performance. I thought it was funny. Sue me!

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
7:34 pm

I guess there could two obozo’s.

Bruno

January 29th, 2013
7:34 pm

Hey Matz, hope you’re doing well. Keep up the good fight for all the lazy people like me. ;-)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gDhR1R3S0s

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
7:36 pm

I guess there could be two obozo’s, sigh.

Bruno

January 29th, 2013
7:36 pm

Moral of the story? Don’t spill your seed on Craigslist.

Jeez—NOW you tell me, @@. :-(

Hillbilly D

January 29th, 2013
7:38 pm

Bruno

That’s probably more info than we needed. :lol:

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
7:40 pm

I’m gonna leave “matz” alone, as long as he’s calling them chickensquirts instead of me a chickensquirt, it’s a welcome change and I’m good with it.

Bruno

January 29th, 2013
7:47 pm

Aesop–Matz is a she.

@@

January 29th, 2013
7:49 pm

bluecoat

January 29th, 2013
7:57 pm

cold and deep said the Texan.

@@

January 29th, 2013
8:02 pm

CAIRO — Egypt’s military chief warned Tuesday of a potential “collapse of the state” after a fourth night of violent street battles between protesters and Egyptian security forces in Cairo and other major cities, heightening the prospect that the country’s military might be forced to intervene.

A military coup?

I’ll take it.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
8:04 pm

I suppose. No knock but I always wondered if you and amvet were one in the same.

Bruno

January 29th, 2013
8:08 pm

Yeah, you’re right, Aesop. Our political outlooks and writing style are so similar that it would be easy to mix us up.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

January 29th, 2013
8:09 pm

amvet always was complex, to say the least.

Hillbilly D

January 29th, 2013
8:11 pm

@@

January 29th, 2013
8:22 pm

Hillbilly:

It’s another example of how Obama gets a pass. When Bush was authorizing raids, the other side was up in arms….calling him inhumane. Unbeknownst to most, Obama has been targeting the low-skilled, service industry illegals, leaving the higher-skilled illegals to go about their business unharmed.

Hillbilly D

January 29th, 2013
8:24 pm

@@

Navarette has been on that for about the last 6 months.

@@

January 29th, 2013
8:49 pm

Hillbilly:

Another one.

Yesterday, I dropped this off at the neighbor fella’s place:

The special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program said Treasury approved all 18 requests it received last year to raise pay for executives at American International Group, General Motors and Ally Financial. Of those requests, 14 were for $100,000 or more; the largest raise was $1 million.

Treasury also allowed pay packages totaling $5 million or more for nearly a quarter of the executives at those firms, the report says.

The report says Treasury bypassed rules under the 2008 bailout that limited pay.

http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Treasury-OKd-big-raises-for-bailout-firms-4230637.php

Not a peep.

Well, the neighbor, in his usual snarky way, asked if I NOW supported government dictating CEOs salaries. My response?

“No…I didn’t support the bailouts. It was your side that wanted to put restrictions on CEOs pay.”

No response.

@@

January 29th, 2013
8:52 pm

It’s kinda like living in Bizarro World.

“Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!”