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.