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