It’s dangerous to heap too much praise on an unfinished product, particularly when there’s still politics to play out. But with a major ethics bill headed for likely passage in the Georgia House of Representatives Monday, it’s worth noting just how much of an unexpected, pleasant turn of events this is.
The bill’s not perfect — show me a bill that is — and it shouldn’t represent the last word ever in Georgia on the topic. It is, however, a bigger step forward than this supporter of ethics reform thought we’d see so soon.
And “soon” is the right word. It was just two years ago, following reports Speaker David Ralston had taken a lobbyist-funded trip to Germany with his family over the previous Thanksgiving, that the latest round of calls for ethics reform got under way.
Nothing came of those calls in that year’s session. As recently as nine months ago, Ralston was casting aspersions on his fellow Republicans who were going along with “media elites and liberal special interest groups” to promote a limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators.
Yet on Monday, House members will consider a bill with Ralston’s name at the top that would prohibit any public official in this state from taking the kind of trip that started this whole crusade. It would curtail much, though not all, of the wining and dining by lobbyists. It cuts out most tickets for football games, concerts and every event in between. It puts some teeth back in the ethics commission’s authority and even improves reporting of campaign contributions made just before the session begins.
For the uninitiated, the Speaker doesn’t sponsor many bills. When he does, they tend to pass the House.
When he introduced the bill late last month, Ralston said he was responding to the will of the people, who on Republican and Democratic primary ballots last summer voted overwhelmingly for gift limits.
I’m sure some people snickered at such a public display of earnestness by a powerful politician. Certainly, I and many others took a trust-but-verify approach.
When the bill appeared to take aim at a number of the very people who’d called for ethics reform, namely tea party activists, a number of reformers said Ralston was acting in bad faith. It didn’t look good, but a few of us advised them to let the legislative process play out.
And the process has done what it’s supposed to do. It’s improved the bill in many ways. Ralston showed flexibility on the definition of “lobbyist,” which had so vexed some reformers (and, as I argued a few weeks ago, presented a genuine challenge to get right). Restrictions were added to tighten up the exception for travel by legislators.
Again, it’s not perfect. Me? I’d also cut out the exceptions that allow lobbyists to continue buying meals for all the members of a legislative committee or subcommittee. But the bill goes far enough that I’m willing to wait and see if it solves the biggest problems.
And, again, the bill still could take a turn for the worse via amendments on the House floor. But what I’ve seen of the legislative process for this bill so far gives makes me optimistic that won’t happen. If it does, you’ll hear from me about it.
When a person is criticized for not doing something, he deserves recognition for setting things right. David Ralston deserves that recognition for this ethics bill, as do many other members of the House leadership team. Their work on this bill is commendable.
The people of Georgia deserve credit, too, for pushing them in this direction. But unlike Ralston and his team, y’all can’t rest just yet: This thing still has to clear the Senate.
– By Kyle Wingfield