Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

This ethics bill is hardly a stopping point

Shortly before the 2013 legislative session ended, the House and Senate passed an ethics bill by a combined vote of 225-0. Such overwhelming, bipartisan actions often are hailed. Should this one be?

Before I answer, let me offer an analogy to kicking a field goal. No, not the one involving Charlie Brown and Lucy.

I mean the one Sen. Josh McKoon made just before HB 142 passed in his chamber. The Columbus Republican has been an early and tireless champion of ethics reform. After enumerating the final bill’s problems, including the way it came into being, McKoon explained why he’d vote for it anyway:

“It’s not everything we need to do, but it’s definitely putting points on the board,” McKoon said. “Tonight, let’s put this one through the uprights, but let’s be prepared to come back next year to score a touchdown on ethics reform.”

I sympathize with the position McKoon found himself in. I also think his analogy should go further.

The way football fans think …

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Ethics bill isn’t perfect, but it is progress

It appears we have an ethics bill.

Speaker David Ralston just confirmed from the House side what the AJC had heard from senators earlier today. Namely, that the two sides, urged along by Gov. Nathan Deal, agreed in the wee hours of Thursday to a compromise between the two main* ethics bills they each passed earlier in the session.

The text of the bill has not yet been made available publicly, but the compromise appears to have been chiefly along two grounds:

First, the House agreed to drop its insistence on a ban on one-on-one lobbyist gifts to legislators and accept the Senate’s preference for a cap — albeit a cap of $75 rather than $100. In exchange, the House won more carve-outs it included in its original version of the bill, HB 142. Those exceptions include gifts (think meals) provided by lobbyists to entire caucuses, the nature of which is subject to approval by each chamber’s ethics committee, as well as allowances for spouses and staff members to accompany legislators …

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How to bridge the gap between House, Senate on ethics bill

A ban on lobbyist-to-legislator gifts with several big exceptions, or a $100 cap with fewer exceptions? That’s the main question legislators must answer by midnight Thursday if they are going to pass ethics reform this year.

The proposed ban originated in the House, the cap in the Senate. Either one would be an improvement over the status quo of unlimited gifts. But, ultimately, legislators must pick one approach. And the best approach would be an even tighter version of the $100 cap.

House Speaker David Ralston has called a cap, rather than a ban, a “gimmick.” Referring to the $100 cap senators imposed on themselves on the first day of this session, Ralston has wondered aloud: Does it limit gifts to $100 per day? Per hour? Per minute? He opted instead to sponsor a bill with a ban.

The speaker was right to question the Senate rule’s lack of specificity. But with only three days left in this session, and with his bill looking dramatically different as senators send it …

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With House on verge of ethics reform, give Ralston his due

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 …

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Ethics quandary at the Gold Dome: What’s a lobbyist?

Of all possible obstacles to ethics reform, who thought the biggest one would be defining the word “lobbyist”? Yet, that’s where we stand today.

For years, the biggest obstacle was getting legislators to take up the issue of lobbyist gifts to legislators. Georgia is one of three states with no restrictions at all on them.

House Speaker David Ralston was one of the strongest, and most powerful, objectors to regulating these gifts. To Ralston’s credit, he responded to public pressure by revealing this past week two mostly good bills. Among other changes, his bills would ban nearly all lobbyist gifts to state and local officials; require campaign contributions in the run-up to the session to be reported within days (rather than in July); and, critically, restore the state ethics commission’s rule-making authority.

Now, if we can only figure out who the lobbyists are.

It sounds easy, right? After all, everyone knows what lobbying is: an effort to influence public officials to do …

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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 …

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The Georgia Legislature is back in town (Updated)

Keep an eye on your life, liberty and property: Georgia’s Legislature is back in action starting today.

My news-side colleague Kristina Torres has an overview of the top five issues to watch during the next few months. I agree with the five and would add to them the continued murmurs about expanding gambling in Georgia to increase funding for the HOPE scholarship, as well as the difficulty of waiting while Congress debates its own spending levels for the years to come, which could affect Georgia’s funding for Medicaid, education, transportation and more. See, too, if Democratic legislators are able to cause trouble for the overwhelming GOP majorities on issues such as illegal immigration — for instance, when legislators try to tweak the 2011 illegal immigration law to fix unintended consequences for Georgians trying to renew their drivers licenses.

On the ethics front, look for the Senate to take some sort of action today on a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts — passing a bill for …

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For Legislature, all roads lead to ethics reform (and vice versa)

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 …

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Balfour case raises a bigger question of ethics

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

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Report: Former ethics director sues, claims wrongful firing

As we’ve talked about possible ethics reform in Georgia on this blog, some state leaders have suggested the better option is to empower the agency formerly known as the State Ethics Commission with more independence and better funding. While I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive, they do have a point about the need for shoring up the ethics commission (excuse me, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission).

That discussion is about to get much more interesting with a reported lawsuit filed by the commission’s former executive director, Stacey Kalberman, claiming she was wrongfully fired for investigating ethics complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal.

According to legal documents posted at CourthouseNews.com (h/t: Peach Pundit), Kalberman claims that in spring 2011 she was forced into a position to resign by the commission’s chairman at the time, Patrick Millsaps, who had made public statements that she already had resigned. The specific events …

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