Today’s Courier Herald Column:
With the General Assembly approaching the mid-point of the session, it is beginning to become more clear what will pass this year, which bills may be in trouble, and which may never see a floor vote. Somewhat surprisingly, one issue that may receive debate time is that of ethics reform.
Georgia’s legislature last revised ethics laws during the 2010 session of the General Assembly. It came on the heels of multiple public and semi-public scandals involving members of the legislature having inappropriate relationships with lobbyists who had business before their committees. There was also a candidate for governor who was found to have set up multiple Political Action Committees in Alabama to launder over $100,000 in improper campaign contributions.
What was missing from this “signature” ethics reform was any sense of independent oversight, or funding for an ethics committee to do anything beyond the minimal clerical activities required to file the newly required paperwork from lobbyists.
It remains legal and “ethical” for lobbyists who need the vote of an influential committee chairman for their client to sleep with that chairman. The ethics committee – sanitized of not only its power but also of the name ethics from its title – remains significantly underfunded and lacks the power to independently investigate suspected transgressions.
Much of the push for ethics reform is focused on capping the amount of money that can be spent on a legislator by a lobbyist. Legislators, who receive a daily per diem allowance that is ostensibly to fund their meals and lodging while in Atlanta, are balking at being limited to gratuities of only $100 per lobbyist. Civic duties in Georgia could grind to a halt if legislators weren’t allowed to attend NASCAR events, sit in Falcons club level seats, or had to drink house wine their steaks at Hal’s under such an extreme cap.
Every state neighboring Georgia has some sort of gift ban. Do not expect this year’s mantra of “competitiveness” with nearby states to extend to ethics laws.
Legislators argue that everything is reported, and the transparency gives voters the power to decide if their legislators are acting in their best interest when attending these events and meals on behalf of their constituents. Yet the burden of reporting is not on the legislator, but on the lobbyist. And if the lobbyist doesn’t report the expenditure – or even register as a lobbyist – there is little that can be done to ensure transparency.
House Speaker David Ralston has been criticized for taking a trip to Europe with his family to study their high speed rail system, and see how it may apply to Georgia. He argues that it was a fully transparent expenditure, and those who elect him can pass judgment as they see fit. Yet at the time the trip was taken, his host was not registered as a lobbyist, and only registered and disclosed the expenditure months afterward. If a lobbyist doesn’t register, or doesn’t report an expenditure, there is no liability on behalf of the elected official.
Lawmakers considering making laws tougher also understand that any citizen can currently walk into the state ethics commission with reporters in tow, and by that evening can face headlines of “Politician faces ethics charges” whether the charges have merit or not. There is a solution that balances transparency and fairness. The ethics process for investigation of suspected violations and enforcement of penalties should be transferred from the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (the ethics commission’s real name)and placed with a statewide grand jury.
The system, proposed as legislation by Congressman Austin Scott when he was a member of the Georgia House, allows for any citizen to bring charges, but the charges would be held secret until they had been vetted by a Grand Jury, which would decide if there was enough merit to warrant an independent investigation.
This system would eliminate the current “self-policing” of the General Assembly, and would ensure that the budget for investigations was not artificially constrained by those who might prefer that there not be sufficient enforcement of Georgia’s tough but toothless ethics laws.
Gift caps will likely remain the subject of ethics reform currently being debated by the General Assembly. While they are easily understood by the general public, they are but a symptom of a much larger problem that is in need of treatment.
For Georgia’s ethics laws to work, there must be effective enforcement mechanisms. For this to be in the realm of the possible, there must be a process that is independent of the legislature’s stingy funding and the Governor’s political appointees.
If given the choice, Georgians should allow unlimited tickets to sporting events and steak dinners at premium restaurants. This, so long as the legislators and other elected officials know there is a process independent of their influence that can effectively investigate and punish the bad apples among them.