Today’s Courier Herald Column:
While the legislature prepared to spend its final days of the 2011 regular session of the General Assembly on tax reform, a coalition of interest groups led by the Tea Party Patriots and Common Cause Georgia are preparing a push for comprehensive ethics reform next year. Reforms are sorely needed and next year can’t come soon enough.
Yesterday, the State Ethics Commission ruled on their interpretation of Georgia’s latest ethics reforms, declaring that gifts and expenses on non-elected state employees, including the staff of the legislature and other elected officials, are exempt from disclosure requirements which promote transparency in government. Ironic, given that the Ethics Commission’s actual name is the “Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.” Cynical insiders claim the name was changed just in the off chance that the Commission ever received sufficient funding to investigate ethics problems, and found a legislator guilty of an ethics violation, the legislator could never be said to have been found guilty by the “ethics commission.” Most Georgia media outlets continue to refer to the GGTCFC as the State Ethics Commission, however.
Yesterday’s ruling gives lobbyists and other non-registered interests the ability to influence key insiders without any paper trail, without a hint of transparency. For those unfamiliar with the legislative process, or with state constitutional offices, staff members often have great influence over final legislation and votes for or against said legislation, as most legislators are part time individuals trying to keep up with a daily flood of information for them to process and render an opinion. Giving lobbyists the ability to influence the influencers without a hint of transparency is bad policy, and bad for Georgia.
Senator Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) has indicated he is willing to have two bills still awaiting action this session be amended to correct the ruling of the ethics commission. Speaker David Ralston was initially non-committal to securing passage for this amendment or either final bill in question, but did have harsh words for the commission, noting that the legislature has already had to speed through one bill to correct an interpretation from them earlier in the session when they ruled any person who talked to a legislator on behalf of their company or industry for which they worked would be deemed a lobbyist, and required to register and file disclosures as such.
While criticizing the ethics commission is easy, fixing the problems via the legislative process is usually quite the opposite. Last session, on the heels of constant lobbyist with legislator sex scandals, the legislature passed what it called one of the toughest ethics packages in the country. Yet it remains perfectly legal and “ethical” under Georgia’s laws for a legislator to have sexual relationships with lobbyists who have business before that legislator’s committee. Many other practices have loopholes so large that many Georgia legislators are able to do business with the state, benefit from their legislation, and never run afoul of Georgia’s ethics laws. And, if on the off chance one of these legislators slips on his loophole and commits an actual ethics violation, he or she can take heart in the fact that the ethics commission is barely funded at a level to support administrative staff, and has no real ability to neither investigate claims nor fund a proper prosecution of a case.
Georgia has one of the largest and most active chapters of the TEA Party Patriots, who have proven their ability to mobilize voters in national elections. They are currently working with groups such as Common Cause to set their sights on state elected officials beginning with next year’s General Assembly, and are already preparing comprehensive ethics reform.
They face somewhat of an uphill battle. Many of the 2010 Republican Primaries had candidates running on a platform of ethics reform. Most did not see their names on a November ballot. Yet, the TEA Party patriots have deep tentacles into Georgia’s grassroots, and have a year to educate their base on the subject.
Georgia needs sweeping comprehensive ethics reform, and needs to properly fund an investigative ethics commission. Hopefully, when a group founded on the basis of cutting government spending demands government spend extra money in one small area, voters and politicians will realize the significance of this demand, and act accordingly.