Archive for the ‘Georgia Legislature’ 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 …

Continue reading This ethics bill is hardly a stopping point »

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 …

Continue reading Ethics bill isn’t perfect, but it is progress »

Most important bill of 2013? A river runs through it

The final day of the legislative session is upon us, with a variety of high-profile bills from guns to ethics to education yet to be decided. But legislators already have taken what could become one of their most consequential actions this year.

And it’s not even a law.

HR 4 is a resolution calling for the settlement of something that, at least until recently, you probably believed was settled long ago: the Georgia-Tennessee border.

Turns out, HR 4 is the 10th such resolution our General Assembly has passed since 1887 seeking to correct a surveyor’s error in marking the border two centuries ago. This time, however, the Legislature explicitly threatens legal action if Tennessee will not resolve the dispute with us by the end of next year’s legislative session.

You can practically hear the guffaws ringing through national news stories about HR 4. To read some of them, you’d think even a meth-addled Don Quixote would know better than to accept this quest.

I, too, …

Continue reading Most important bill of 2013? A river runs through it »

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 …

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

Don’t move backward on school choice

Gerard Robinson recalls the first time people called on legislators to put income limits on Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships. He was one of them.

“When the coalition in Georgia worked to create” the scholarships in 2008, Robinson told me Thursday, “I was actually in the minority asking and pushing for a means-tested voucher. … When it became law, I said fine, let’s make this work.”

Robinson certainly has tried to make the $51.5 million-a-year tax-credit scholarship work. He’s a board member for the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, the largest of Georgia’s student scholarship organizations (SSOs) which collect donations via the tax-credit program and award them to deserving students.

But he also brings a national perspective, having worked with Milwaukee’s voucher program and as a top education officer in Florida and Virginia. And he thinks Georgia shouldn’t move backward and impose income limits, the practice known as means-testing, as other states do.

“I believe the Georgia …

Continue reading Don’t move backward on school choice »

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 …

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

One message minority voters already sent Georgia’s GOP

The GOP’s post-election listening tour comes to Atlanta today, with a twist.

Reince Preibus, the recently re-elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, is scheduled to meet this afternoon with a couple of dozen black Republicans in an “engagement and listening session” aimed at widening the GOP’s appeal. It’s an imperative bit of outreach for Georgia Republicans — the like of which the state party, despite undeniable demographic trends away from its nearly all-white voting base, has done dangerously little.

No doubt, any number of ideas will be discussed during this session. But there’s one policy that is a color-blindingly obvious necessity for any serious attempt to win over minority voters: school choice.

Just a week ago, hundreds of students and their parents and teachers braved the cold for the annual school-choice rally on the Capitol steps. As is the case every year, the majority of these students were not white.

And almost all of them will be …

Continue reading One message minority voters already sent Georgia’s GOP »

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 …

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

In defense of Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships

This month the Wingfield household, like millions of others across America, has received a growing number of tax documents. Among them are forms certifying that we gave $50 to this charity or $100 to that one, allowing us to reduce what we owe in taxes.

What neither we nor the IRS will receive is official documentation that our church converted X number of non-believers into Christians, or that a charity we supported decreased poverty or sexual exploitation by a quantifiable amount. Or that everyone who benefited from our donations earned less than a certain amount of income.

Yet, similar bits of data are being requested of one of the kinds of non-profits we could have supported but didn’t: Georgia’s student scholarship organizations.

These SSOs accept donations from Georgia taxpayers, who can then reduce their state income taxes by an equal amount — up to a limit for all donors of about $50 million per year, or one-quarter of 1 percent of all revenues the state expects to …

Continue reading In defense of Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships »

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 …

Continue reading Ralston’s ethics proposal would be a significant step forward »