Gift caps and a Republican fear of promises in writing

Promises, promises.

Only three weeks have passed since a coalition of tea party and good-government groups began pressing legislative candidates to back a measure capping gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers at $100.

Not $100 per day. Just $100 per gift. And only those gifts that come from registered lobbyists. It is a bar so high that, were it a limbo dance, most of us could climb up on a pair of stilts and still pass underneath.

As of Wednesday, 80 candidates running in the July 31st primaries have promised in writing to sponsor – not just vote for – legislation that includes these exact words: “It shall be unlawful for a lobbyist to make a gift to a public officer where the value of the gift is more than $100.00.” Signers include the top two leaders of the Republican state Senate.

This despite a warning from House Speaker David Ralston that liberal groups involved in the pledge drive are leading Republicans down a primrose path that could result in an underground economy at the state Capitol. (Though some might argue that the Capitol has never had any other kind.)

Moreover, Gov. Nathan Deal last week emphasized his own indifference to a gift cap in a radio interview. “I’m not so sure if the legislative branch adopts any reforms, that the press is going to give them credit for doing it,” the governor said.

Yet the man who is really holding back gift-cap drive isn’t the governor and isn’t the House speaker. He doesn’t even live in Georgia. He is Grover Norquist, who has made many Georgia Republicans – and even some Democrats — extra cautious when it comes to signing stray pieces of paper.

Norquist has built his Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, on a promise extracted from local and national GOP candidates eager to curry favor with hardcore fiscal conservatives who turn out for primaries: No tax increases, ever.

But campaigning isn’t governing, as Gov. Sonny Perdue often pointed out.

Perdue tangled with Norquist over an increase in the state tax on cigarettes in 2003.

This week, Norquist declared Deal’s support for a transportation sales tax – the referendums are also on July 31 – as a betrayal of a no-tax pledge signed in 2010. (”The fact is, Grover Norquist doesn’t have to commute in Atlanta,” Deal’s spokesman said.)

And, of course, Norquist has been named as the chief impediment to a deficit reduction deal in Washington that would tie revenue increases with spending cuts.

In Georgia, pledge wariness is most obvious in this year’s contest for state Senate District 6, now held by Democrat Doug Stoner of Smyrna. The Cobb County district has been redrawn to include most of Buckhead, and Republicans hope that winning it will give them a constitutional majority in the chamber.

Three of the four candidates, including Stoner, have declined to sign the pledge. Only Drew Ellenburg, who’s in the wholesale furniture business, has added his signature. “I run a business and I don’t want anybody buying my lunch and giving me presents,” Ellenburg said Tuesday in a televised debate.

Hunter Hill, who works for a security firm, has called the pledge a “gimmick” – given that any gift cap would still allow a lobbyist to write a lawmaker a $2,500 check for his campaign. “The gift ban, on its own, only looks at one side of the equation,” Hill said in an email.

Hunter supports a gift cap, but would put more emphasis on requiring that lawmakers report any and all gifts they’re given – something not now required.

Josh Belinfante, an attorney and former vice chairman of the State Ethics Commission, says whether a cap passes or not, he has vowed not to accept anything from a registered lobbyist worth more than $100. He agrees it not a rigid standard. “Which is why it blows my mind, the opposition to it,” he said.

Yet Belinfante won’t sign the pledge. “When you sign a pledge to a third party, the electorate is taken out, and the head of that third party can decide whether the pledge has been violated or not,” he said. “I just don’t want to outsource my vote.”

Stoner, the Democratic incumbent, has sponsored legislation requiring gift caps for state lawmakers, though he admits the limit may be more “symbolic” than anything else. “In extreme cases, it might stop certain abuses,” Stoner said.

But Republicans have taught him to beware of pledges. “They’ve gotten themselves tied in knots,” Stoner said. Much bad legislation has been passed into law merely to meet appearances, he said.

And besides, Stoner asked, what if the legislative process results in a $125 cap?

William Perry is executive director of Common Cause Georgia, one of the groups backing the pledge drive. He acknowledges running into “an awful lot” of uneasy Republicans.

“While I can understand the whole Grover Norquist situation burning people, I think this is something different. It’s very specific,” he said.

Perry said he’s not worried about the refusals by District 6 Senate candidates. They’ve said enough in public that they won’t be allowed to back down.

As for other candidates, Republican or Democrat, who fear they may be signing away their souls, Perry reminds them of this single sentence: : “It shall be unlawful for a lobbyist to make a gift to a public officer where the value of the gift is more than $100.00.”

Says Perry: “If the bill gets varied in any way from that language, you’re off the hook.”

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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18 comments Add your comment

Red

June 13th, 2012
5:48 pm

This would result in an underground economy at the capitol? What does that say for your own leadership and party Mr. Speaker? Don’t trust your fellow legislators? “Conservative”, “morals”, and “principles” much? Let’s see. None of them have a bit of ethics about them. A group wants to hold them accountable. And the response is “we’ll just take our shady behavior underground”.

And this goes for those in both parties since I know it happens everywhere. But when the ‘morality’ party is the one overwhelmingly in charge, this does not look good for them at all. Term limits or this group finding challengers for the whole lot of them is priority. If I were Ralston, I’d be ashamed to say that this would only drive the sleaze deeper underground. He’s admitting he has no control (accomplice maybe?) and that the body already is corrupt and would only get worse when rules are applied and these people are held accountable. Sad day that corruption is so blatant and open.

Centrist

June 13th, 2012
5:49 pm

Liberals like to point to the no tax increase pledge as if it is a knee jerk action. Taxes are at an all time high as a percentage of our Gross National Product. Sales taxes automatically increase with income/spending, property taxes increase if/when you move up to a bigger, nicer house (homestead exemptions don’t), and income taxes rise progressively with income. Everyone pays more and more without having government raise rates or add even more taxes. Those who sign a pledge simply say no more added increases on top of the automatic ones.

Centrist

June 13th, 2012
6:02 pm

The following is part of an email response I just received from Senator Isakson, from my lobbying for a Buffet rule tax to address the “fairness” issue (I don’t agree the response):

I do not believe targeting individual tax payers to carry more and more of the burden is the way to approach tax reform. Tax reform should be comprehensive and complete. One of the main reasons I voted against cloture on this bill was because I believe that raising taxes on small businesses that file taxes under S Corporations, Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) or sole proprietorships will only place a greater burden on families and small businesses. We must alleviate the tax burden placed on our citizens, not increase it. At a time when unemployment is high, I do not believe it makes sense to increase taxes on employers, especially since small businesses currently create two-thirds of the new jobs in our country. The real victims of this tax increase would be the people who otherwise would have been hired by small businesses owners were it not for a tax increase. Americans are facing tough times, and Congress must work toward policies that create jobs and foster economic development. We do not need new taxes and more restrictions.

Bob Loblaw

June 13th, 2012
6:22 pm

Three columns on Ethics today? Is there anything else out there even slightly maybe even a little bit important to talk about?

Kris

June 13th, 2012
6:25 pm

Ok….Yet another pledge the republicans want to sign to later break.
Deal’s support for the sales tax as a betrayal of the ATR’s no-tax pledge once signed by Deal. Way to go double Dip deal
Didn’t Chip Rogers vote to place the T-SPLOST on the ballot, not once, but TWICE?
So will the GOP tell the truth? That be the case I will sign a pledge not to talk bad about the corrupt republican crooks…….
Ok that’s long enough
The Sorry corrupt republicans. Deal and GOP never met a TAX they did not like.

OBAMA 2012

Can the republicans spell Ethics

Bob Loblaw

June 13th, 2012
6:28 pm

Its odd that Norquist would oppose you having even an opportunity to cast a vote on a sales tax to fund a list of projects and grants that are in ink. Why is he afraid of Georgians going to the ballot to make that decision? Its not like the Guv has signed a bill increasing taxes or anything. Very anti-Democratic. Makes me think about what he’s afraid of.

td

June 13th, 2012
6:37 pm

Centrist

June 13th, 2012
6:02 pm

I totally agree with Johnny on this issue.

td

June 13th, 2012
6:39 pm

I see the libs on here are still angry that there is one republican that is forcing the conservative politicians to hold up to their campaign promises. I think Grover deserves the Presidential medal for doing such a great job.

Cutty

June 13th, 2012
7:43 pm

Of course “Centrist” and td will find ANY way possible to turn this into somehow being a democrat’s fault. It’s a $100 limit PER gift. 12 lobbyists can each go in and give a rep a nice birthday gift and still be within the law. If state employees can’t accept any gifts from anyone doing business with the state, then why should anyone in the General Assembly. That should be the question. And the fact that the tea party, Common Cause, and any other organization are saying its ok to accept $100 per gift from a lobbyist, just shows the intelligence of citizens in this state.

DP

June 13th, 2012
8:21 pm

Jim

Where can we see this list?

Red

June 13th, 2012
8:37 pm

Bob – nothing anti-democratic about it. Seeing the history of votes put before the people in this state, there is a point to be made. Things are painted to look rosy and glorious when in fact they are intentionally designed to mislead, manipulate, and be used as means to line pockets and gain favors. This is a charlatan’s way of baiting the people and then saying “well the people voted for it” when the feces hits the fan later. These are lawyers who know how to work the system. Half of those under the Dome already have something to gain directly or indirectly from any potential projects. This gives them an “out” on raising taxes and we’re the stupid sheep lining up to support the most corrupt area in state government.

jgalloway

June 13th, 2012
9:04 pm

Good catch, DP. I’ve added a link in the third paragraph, so you can see who’s signed up.

Eugene Patrick Devany

June 13th, 2012
9:18 pm

td writes, “I think Grover deserves the Presidential medal for doing such a great job.” Perhaps Mr. Obama will give it to him. (lol)

The no-tax pledge is not “a promise to oppose tax increases everywhere and always” because it applies to the income tax and does not apply to tax reform that might include a sales tax, or VAT or even a net wealth tax.

My Tax Reform Dare (if you enjoy real tax reform)

The 2-4-8 Tax Blend is a powerful and resilient way to tax because it adds a VAT ($10 trillion sales base) and net wealth tax ($53 trillion individual base) to the income tax ($13 trillion individual and corporate base). The Bowles-Simpson Commission was not permitted to consider these tax bases and congress apparently does not think the economy is important enough to even study the options. The tax blend is simple, efficient and so fair that it does not give a partisan advantage to either Democrats or Republicans. It is balanced to help everyone prosper and to pay more taxes only as they do.

For Business: 8% corporate rate and 4% VAT – (“tax perfection” with no downside)
For Individuals: 8% individual rate and 2% net wealth – [excluding $15,000 savings and all retirement funds]

It produces $500 billion more in revenue [about 18.5% of GDP] with no need for payroll, estate, and capital gains taxes or deferral of foreign income. This simple tax code creates an economic ecosystem of sustainable growth and investment freedom. With no (Democratic) government stimulus or (Republican) tax expenditures, a typical family would save or spend $640 more per month, business would add jobs to meet the increased demand and owners would reap handsome profit the old fashion way – by keeping 92% of income.

After six months of writing blogs and comments; no person has identified a legal, logical or economic flaw outlining why the 2-4-8 Tax Blend would not produce sustainable economic recovery. If anyone can demonstrate why this tax reform will not work I will take down my web at http://www.TaxNetWealth.com. Please note that I do not consider making it too easy to tax or fears of runaway congressional spending as valid objections to any tax plan.

Eugene Patrick Devany, JD, MPA

Kris

June 13th, 2012
9:27 pm

Looks like there is no honest solution to the problem. I offer This.

Recall or impeach the (double dipping) governor and the legislature. Impose a 0 dollar cap on all gifts.
( punish all offenders not a slap on the hand but a real PUBLIC FLOGGING). Impose a term limit 4 years. This should be put on a ballet so the people can vote on it. Just my 2 cents.

OBAMA 2012

td

June 13th, 2012
9:36 pm

Eugene Patrick Devany

June 13th, 2012
9:18 pm

“no person has identified a legal, logical or economic flaw outlining why the 2-4-8 Tax Blend would not produce sustainable economic recovery.”

1: By your terms then you are going to raise the amount of taxes to GDP and therefore take additional money out of the private sector to go to the public sector. This point alone means this plan is economically flawed because even Dems like Clinton say you do not raise taxes in a time of economic downturn.

2: When the 16th Amendment was talked about and sold to the American people that it would only effect the top 1% to make sure they paid their fair share. To say a VAT would stay at 4% is a farce and everyone knows it. So there is a logical flaw in your point.

3: I would think that there would have to be a Constitutional Amendment before the Federal government ever could establish a VAT (national sales tax). All the experts of the fair tax think it would have to be one on Constitutional grounds.

DP

June 13th, 2012
9:49 pm

Sorry Jim but I don’t see a link. What was the group.

Question Man

June 13th, 2012
11:26 pm

Didn’t Jay Bookman do an excellent job of showing the effect of a $100 cap in Georgia?

http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2012/06/13/ga-legislators-face-starvation-on-100-a-meal-limit/

[...] Galloway offers the thought that the Grover Norquist pledge and the way it has been used against Republicans not just when endorsing voter-initiated tax hikes, [...]