Ethics Reform Is In The Realm Of The Possible

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Legislators will be in session every day this week in Atlanta, completing days 10-14 as they march to a day 40 Sine Die as quickly as possible.  It’s a campaign year, and legislators cannot raise campaign cash while the legislature is in session.  Many are in significantly changed districts courtesy of reapportionment, and ensuring there’s a healthy war chest before qualifying begins is always a key legislative agenda.  Besides, legislators are averse to tackling too many tough issues during an election year anyway.  There’s no need to risk offending part of the electorate so close to campaign season.

One of the issues that is being pushed from the outside of leadership is significant ethics reform in Georgia.  Democrats have made it part of their legislative agenda, which isn’t highly unusual.  Minority parties generally find religion fairly quickly with regards to ethics reform.  It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans spoke of the need for tougher ethics measures, with tin eared Democrats saying things were running just fine the way they were.

The AJC’s Kyle Wingfield demonstrates one reason why this is so in a column from last Friday, dropping a Pareto analysis on lobbyists’ expenditures and their recipients.  He found that 19% of the gifts reported went to the 6 Republican leaders of the House and Senate, but accounted for 72% of money spent by lobbyists during the 2011 session 79% of lobbyist expenditures to members of the General Assembly’s leadership would be unaffected by a $100 gift ban.  (Corrected from the orignal version, which I read and interpreted incorrectly) It’s easy for Democrats to sign on to a $100 expenditure cap when they clearly are not receiving gifts of this size any longer.

The Democrats, now on the losing end of the Republicans near super-majority status, are in a position to talk about the need for ethics reform, but can do little about it on their own.  What makes this year different, however, is that the TEA Party is organizing behind the need for stronger ethics laws.  With the TEA Party already aiming their fire at suburban Atlanta lawmakers who are supporting the T-SPLOST referendums, eithics reform adds an additional measure guaranteed to make legislators facing a new district and possible primary opponents uncomfortable. 

It is for this reason that ethics reform may lie in the realm of the possible.  Legislators can still be counted on to do the least possible, which as always includes the possibility of doing nothing.  Legislators continue to pat themselves on the back for ethics reforms passed in the wake of scandal where the Speaker resigned after his wife disclosed he was cheating on her with a lobbyist for whom he had sponsored a bill granting her employer a $300 Million + pipeline and much of the leadership bench set to replace him was also found to be ethically compromised.

It remains perfectly legal for a member of the general assembly to have sexual relations with a lobbyist who has business before his or her committee.  The new reforms only added additional administrative responsibilities to an ethics staff that has continued to see its budget cut.  There are no funds for investigation.  Elected officials and candidates are left to largely police themselves.

Georgia has a cherished history with lobbyists exerting influence over the legislature against the goals of the citizens at large. The Yazoo land scandal, where members of the Yazoo land company got many in the legislature drunk and have them vote to give away what is now northern Alabama and Mississippi to a private company, set a precedent that would easily fit in today’s General Assembly.  I’m sure the Yazoo land company was a “good corporate citizen” and the sale of surplus lands was all about “jobs and competitiveness.”

Legislators say more laws are not needed, but rather, the public should focus on “Electing honest people.”  Honest people are known to succumb to temptation, and in the private sector, controls are usually instituted to help keep honest people honest.

Bank tellers, for instance, are among the lowest paid bank employees but have direct access to an almost infinite amount of cash.  They are certainly screened as part of the application process to check for signs of dishonesty in their past, or financial stress that would indicate a risk of temptation.  But there are also controls in place to monitor their activities daily.  Those tempted to become less than honest after they are hired understand the chance of being caught is very high and the consequences even higher.   Newly elected “honest” legislators quickly learn that there is a lot of latitude under current ethics laws to remain “honest” and still operate within the shadows of ethical murkiness.

Georgia needs real ethics reform not because we elect those who are dishonest, but to help balance the temptations offered by the rich and powerful with the needs of those who are not but have every right for their interests to be represented.  In short, good ethics laws help keep the honest honest.  Georgia’s history, including recent history, demonstrates reforms are needed.  A coalition of TEA Party activists on the right and Democrats from the left may be able to enforce that change.

29 comments

  1. CobbGOPer says:

    “Georgia needs real ethics reform not because we elect those who are dishonest…”

    You made me spit my coffee on my keyboard. I guess being on Citizens for Reform of Ethics in Washington’s (CREW) Top 15 Most Corrupt Members of Congress list for several years, as well as having ethics probes at the congressional (before he quashed it by resigning) and state (before he cut the ethics commission’s budget and forced out the ED, killing the investigation) levels does not qualify one as being ‘dishonest.’ But it sure as hell should have been more of a red flag to GOP voters in this state who now profess they strongly support ethics reform. It’s not a Democrat conspiracy, people. Deal really is a shady politician with questionable ethics who was elected in spite of this.

    Because honestly, no gall darn woman could possibly run this state, could they? [Sigh]

    Karen Handel, shaking head, “Told you so,” etc.

  2. Three Jack says:

    “But there are also controls in place to monitor their activities daily.”

    Instead of gift limits that will be ignored, Georgia lawmakers should face the same scrutiny as a bank teller. Every morning each legislator should be required to post their schedule online. Schedule should include every lobbyist paid for activity including location, cost and topics discussed.

    There was a great story in the Sunday AJC about Rep. Lynn Smith coercing a bunch of lobbyists to pay for her entire committee’s dinner (Natural Resources and Environment). The lobbyists couldn’t fork over contributions fast enough. The AJC followed the committee to a local restaurant and noted that many of the legislators could not be identified due to their entering through a back door. But those that were interviewed cried the usual BS about only being paid $17,000 a year, only getting $173 per diem everyday, etc. etc. It was a real tear jerker of a story.

    If there is nothing wrong with accepting lobbyist gifts as most of our legislators say, then why do they feel it necessary to sneak in the back door of a restaurant in order to avoid an AJC reporter? If I were running a campaign challenging any incumbent this year, the incumbent’s record of gift receiving would be topic number 1.

    • CobbGOPer says:

      Oh, I weep for these part-time legislators and their paltry “$17K” a year (plus per diems), knowing that the vast majority of them are either lawyers, business execs/owners, or other relatively well-off professions that allow them the time, connections (for fundraising purposes), and financial security needed to run for and maintain public office.

      I really feel for you, so I think you should get all the free drinks at Hal’s that you want. Kip Smith will be your permanent designated driver.

    • Three Jack says:

      Link to the AJC story referenced in my earlier post, ‘Legislators graze on lobbyists tab’ — http://www6.lexisnexis.com/publisher/EndUser?Action=UserDisplayFullDocument&orgId=574&topicId=100020422&docId=l:1593125710&Em=7&start=5

      from the story, ‘Here’s how it works at the state Capitol. The members of the House Natural Resources Committee wanted a dinner in their honor, so Chairwoman Lynn Smith issued an open call for sponsors.’

      “Goodness, guys, we only make $17,500 a year. You know?” (Rep. Ralph) Long (D-ATL) said, adding that he would not want to serve if the law were changed ($100 per event lobby ‘limits’). “I couldn’t, because I mean, I can’t afford to be here otherwise. I can’t afford to do it,” he said. Then quit!

      Rep. Tom McCall (R-Elberton) said, “If folks want to fuss about it, tell them to run for office. … Then see what it takes to come up here and spend a week away from your business and home.” Rep. McCall gets the first annual Doug & Wendy Whiner Award.

      (Rep. Lynn) Smith, R-Newnan, added that perhaps the state needs full-time legislators who are “paid accordingly.” Is that a threat…either leave us alone or we’re gonna make our jobs full time!

      from the story, ‘It was not clear how many legislators attended the dinner, since many entered through the back door.’

      Yea, no problem with this system…committee chairwoman snaps her fingers, lobbyists flock to her like a bunch of groupies hanging all over a rock star.

  3. debbie0040 says:

    I never thought I would see the day when I would see Republicans fight against a cap on lobbyist gifts – but that is what is going on and it is a battle royal behind the scenes in the House. There are some that are supportive but have not “officially” signed on yet but there are many that are opposing caps very strongly. How can conservatives argue that having no caps on lobbyist gifts is ok as long as it is disclosed?

    Some excuses we have heard on opposing caps on lobbyist gifts: “At least it is private money paying for meals and not tax-payer money.” Also, “You can’t legislate morality.”

    I asked legislators that oppose caps on lobbyist gifts if they would feel the same way if the Democrats were in control..

    • UpHere says:

      What is it about a $100 cap that is so important? Isn’t ALL gifts, regardless of value, reported now? Maybe I am missing something but, as long as every gift is disclosed openly, I don’t see the problem.

    • CobbGOPer says:

      Ha! And I bet the one who told you “You can’t legislate morality” voted against Sunday sales last year.

    • Three Jack says:

      “How can conservatives argue that having no caps on lobbyist gifts is ok as long as it is disclosed?”

      Simple Debbie, the very foundation of conservatism is self responsibility. Therefore it stands to reason that conservatives would expect their elected officials to act responsibly even when they think nobody is watching. So putting an arbitrary limit on how an elected conservative acts goes against the basic premise of self responsibility.

      Again I say we would be better off dropping the cap idea and instead force daily disclosure of schedule and who paid for lunch, dinner, tickets or any other activity sponsored by lobbyists. This way, legislators would either stop their brazen abuse of the system or be exposed to their constituents who then must take responsibility for making sure the lobby whore is voted out of office. In the end, the real responsibility falls on us the voters…as a group, we have failed to police our elected officials and they took advantage of constituent apathy.

  4. debbie0040 says:

    “Bank tellers, for instance, are among the lowest paid bank employees but have direct access to an almost infinite amount of cash. They are certainly screened as part of the application process to check for signs of dishonesty in their past, or financial stress that would indicate a risk of temptation. But there are also controls in place to monitor their activities daily. Those tempted to become less than honest after they are hired understand the chance of being caught is very high and the consequences even higher. Newly elected “honest” legislators quickly learn that there is a lot of latitude under current ethics laws to remain “honest” and still operate within the shadows of ethical murkiness.”

    • UpHere says:

      There are monitors in place. I can go on the ethics website and search my senator and representative and see everything that they are given as a gift or a contribution. It is ALL there.

      • debbie0040 says:

        And we intend to make it easier for the average citizen to find out about lobbyist gifts to their legislator. We have volunteers gathering the lobbyist gift data and we will begin emailing it out in a spreadsheet twice monthly.

        Using your logic, why have DUI laws in place? Can’t we just use disclosure and allow people that are drunk to call a hotline and inform law-enforcement they are about to drive drunk. Why even put limits on campaign donations – why not just have disclosure?

        None of the above suggestions are feasible and neither is continuing to allow unlimited lobbyist gifts. If the Dems were in charge the GOP would be on board. I was actually told by one legislator that the Democrats were in control for decades and took lobbyist gifts so why shouldn’t the GOP enjoy it now… It was the attitude the Democrats enjoyed the fruits of being in control so why shouldn’t the Republicans. That is the same attitude as the GOP had on a national basis under W. and we see how that turned out.

        I amazed that many Republicans want to continue to allow unlimited gift limits. The bottom line is that a lobbyist could give a legislator a house or car and disclose it and it would be legal. States surrounding Georgia limit lobbyist gifts but it is being resisted in Georgia…

        • UpHere says:

          DUI is against the law; accepting gifts, as long as they are disclosed, is not.

          I can see why you are losing this argument with the House. You use hyperbole trying to make a point but it makes you look silly.

          Someone else posted this: “Simple Debbie, the very foundation of conservatism is self responsibility. Therefore it stands to reason that conservatives would expect their elected officials to act responsibly even when they think nobody is watching. So putting an arbitrary limit on how an elected conservative acts goes against the basic premise of self responsibility.” How true this is and a true conservative feels the same way.

          • debbie0040 says:

            “Simple Debbie, the very foundation of conservatism is self responsibility. Therefore it stands to reason that conservatives would expect their elected officials to act responsibly even when they think nobody is watching. So putting an arbitrary limit on how an elected conservative acts goes against the basic premise of self responsibility.” How true this is and a true conservative feels the same way.”

            Well then why have limits on campaign contibutions? After all, we expect elected officials to act responsibly… What is the difference?

            If the House GOP members want to go on record as opposing caps on lobbyist gifts then that is their decision. They are the ones that will have to deal with the fall-out from their position…

            • UpHere says:

              First, you want to argue that DUI is the same as LEGAL lobbyist gifts. Second, it is that LEGAL lobbyist gifts are the same as actual monetary campaign contributions. Yeah, I would take you seriously.

            • Three Jack says:

              Debbie, with SuperPACs, there are essentially no limits on campaign contributions. Additionally 504c3 groups can pretty much spend whatever they raise in support of a certain candidate as long as they don’t come right out and say, ‘Vote for BillyBobBubba III’.

              The Tea Party Patriots have a policy against endorsing candidates. I suggest the same non-endorsement policy should be applied to specific legislation that would obviously increase regulation with little to no chance of deterring the action it attempts to regulate.

              You threaten “fallout” if conservatives oppose arbitrary caps supported by exactly 1 of 236 legislative members. They might actually take heed except you have yet to backup previous bold verbal threats with action. You don’t have the resources to challenge the entire Georgia legislature on this issue. On top of that, you don’t have consensus within your own tea party as evidenced by the posts on this thread.

              Instead of tyrannically demanding agreement on this bill, why not show leadership by meeting with legislators to work out conservative reform based on self responsibility that can actually pass both houses?

              • debbie0040 says:

                The fall out I was referring to was bad press and that is already happening and will continue to happen. I can also tell you that there are GOP candidates that will be challenging incumbents in the House that have said they were going to run supporting a tough ethics platform and supporting the ethics bill. They contacted us after we announced the ethics legislation at the press conference, so ethics will be an issue raised in many races this year. We will not be endorsing in any of the Legislative races, though. Tea Party Patriots advocate for and against legislation and you are arrogant to suggest we stop doing that. That is something we have been doing since we were formed in 2009. Limits on lobbyist caps will continue to be pushed . We do have much support in the Senate.

                Up there, unlimited lobbyist gifts are legal now but if the ethics bill passes that will no longer be the case. Legislation was passed at some point that put limits on campaign contributions and made them illegal.. According to your logic, why would that be needed because we should be able to trust elected officials to do the right thing?

                • Three Jack says:

                  debbie, It is not ‘arrogant’ to suggest TPP avoid endorsement of certain bills like this bogus ethics reform legislation that will do nothing to curb lobby expenditures. It is one thing to advocate legislative concepts like ethics reform, quite another to put TPP’s signature on specific legislation. Now you are pigeon-holed into advocating just this one bill that has limited support with very little chance of passing.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        All there only if it’s reported. What are the consequences if a gift isn’t reported? Simply file an amended report. It’s all on the up and up.

        Speaker Ralston’s $17,000+ family and staff European vacation. Amended report.

        Lt Gov Cagle’s $5,000 golf outing? Amended report.

  5. saltycracker says:

    Ethics reform would have to cover a lot more than gifts…..its those alchemies that turn $17K a year into hundreds of thousands of equity for the legislator and leave the ashes of taxpayer money….

  6. Dave Bearse says:

    There’ not much the Tea Party and I agree on, but a gift limit is one thing.

    That only one elected GOP legislator (out of 130+) would sponsor legislation capping the value of gifts speaks to the leadership’s control of the rank and file by the leadership in protecting a perk. It’s a rich perk indeed when only 6 Republican leaders of the House and Senate (2.5%) account for 72% of money spent by lobbyists during the 2011 session. That works out to those six accounting for 98 times more in the way of lobbying and gifts than the average of the other 230 (0.72 / 6 vs 0.28 / 150)—Wingfield’s 72% probably includes expenses where the 6 were but part of a larger group so the 100 times more is an overstatment, but you can get the point.

    • Charlie says:

      I have been notified by a friend who may or may not be Kyle Wingfield that I misinterpreted his column/stats in my column above. His original piece is here.

      http://blogs.ajc.com/kyle-wingfield/2012/01/27/by-the-numbers-why-ethics-reform-makes-sense-in-georgia/

      In my late night speed read, I interpreted what he wrote incorrectly. His point was that 79% of the expenditures to the leadership group came from just 19% of those who spent money on them. Thus, the gift ban wouldn’t affect 81% of the lobbyist expenditures on the few he studied. I stick with my larger point, but got this part flat wrong.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Correction appreciated.

        Based on the 19-72 split, one might think that the 6 leaders typically receive gifts that are much more valuable than those received by the rank and file. That may not be true though, given the impact of a single $17,000+ European vacation on the average. Median rather than average almost always better conveys the middle when considering a set of numbers capped on end.

  7. Jane says:

    My proposal
    Eliminate per diem for anyone whose district includes precincts withing 10 miles of the capital. They can stay at thier own home.

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