The Gift Cap As Magic Wand

I was informed by a blast email yesterday that if I don’t sign the pledge to support a $100 lobbyist gift cap I’ll be placed on a list of non-signers that will be made public. Another blast email this morning informed me that accepting any kindness from anyone at anytime is bribery. Forget the public list, I need to be arrested!

There are some things I want to say about all this.

First let me defend Speaker Ralston. He’s been labeled as a “defender of the status quo” and a “protector of a corrupt system” and other less kind things because he’s said he doesn’t see how a gift cap improves ethics. I agree with him on that, which is why I haven’t and won’t sign Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform’s gift cap pledge. Mine and Ralston’s skepticism of a gift cap doesn’t mean we don’t support ethics reform nor does it indicate approval of abuses that may be taking place right now.

I’ll let the Speaker speak for himself but here’s what I think: We don’t need more ethics laws, we need to enforce the ones we have.

There are 35 pages of law governing conduct of public officials and lobbyists – enforce them.


If there are weaknesses in our current enforcement methods, and I personally think there are, then let’s strengthen those weaknesses. Passing new regulations generally only impacts the people following the rules not the rule breakers, so let’s punish the rule breakers.

Recently a sitting Commissioner in my County pled guilty to accepting bribes and laundering drug money. I’m embarrassed and angry. Does it mean we need new ethics laws? Not necessarily. Bribery and money laundering are already illegal. Reading over the FBI statement on the matter, it’s clear to me recent ethics ordinances passed by the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners were on Lasseter’s mind, yet she plowed ahead with her illegal activities. As Commission Chair Charlotte Nash said at the Gwinnett GOP meeting last Saturday: at some point personal responsibility plays a role and we should expect public officials to do the right thing and follow the law.

In the minds of far too many a gift cap is the sum total of ethics reform. It’s almost as if we could pass a bill that did nothing except implement a gift cap and be hailed as heroes. What a shame.

As I discuss ethics reform with people at events the only issue they bring up up is a gift cap. When I point out it’s flaws the response is invariably “well, it’s symbolic and will help restore people’s trust in government.” I think the exact opposite will occur. I think when people realize how a gift cap doesn’t change a thing they will be angry. When the public realizes how easy a gift cap is to skirt around and how much harder it will be to track down which lobbyist took which Legislator to dinner or the Braves game they’ll be beyond outraged. They will view it as symbolism over substance, and they’ll be right.

A gift cap wont meant you’ll see fewer Legislators at sporting events, they’ll just be sitting in cheaper seats. A gift cap won’t mean you’ll see fewer meals, either more lobbyists will be present to split the costs or they’ll go to cheaper restaurants.

Ethics reform always polls well but is never more than a blip on the list of issues voters consider most important. Kudos are in order for the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform because they took this topic from a blip to the front pages. It’s an election issue in State House and State Senate races all over Georgia, and that’s a good thing if we deal with the substance of the issue. History is full of examples of bad law made in response to public demands. Let’s make sure reform gets done right: no symbolism over substance.

As a colleague of mine once said “if I’m going to sell my vote, I can do it while eating a hot dog just as easily as a steak dinner.” Take care to do all you can to elect ethical people and vote out unethical ones. But folks, unless we tackle the issue of better enforcement of existing laws, we’re wasting our time.

That’s my opinion, I welcome yours.

72 comments

  1. I Miss the 90s says:

    I am becoming tired of all of these juvenile claims about “the system.”

    The system is broken, the system is corrupt, the system this, the system that. Grow up.

    Buzz, I disagree with you on just about every issue…but I respect you and know that you too are a human being.

    Let me ask you this: Would you change your vote on a piece of legislation because of a gift or a campaign contribution?

    No need to wait for your response, I know that the answer is “no.” Why? Because neither you nor the system is corrupt. Sure, individual politicians are occasionally brought up on corruption charges and sometimes they really did engage in corrupt activities (Duke Cunningham and William Jefferson come to mind).

    Gifts do not buy votes and any lobbyist that thinks a vote can be bought with a bottle (or case) of wine, tickets to a show, or campaign contributions is a moron. This issue about gift giving is a public relations issue, not a good-government issue.

  2. xdog says:

    Hello, Buzz. Thanks for your time.

    “First let me defend Speaker Ralston.”
    “Mine and Ralston’s skepticism of a gift cap doesn’t mean we don’t support ethics reform nor does it indicate approval of abuses that may be taking place right now.”

    OK, let’s get down to it.

    Do you think Speaker Ralston’s acceptance of a $17,000 European vacation for his family and staff is typical of ethical abuses that may be ‘taking place right now’, or do you not?

    Do you agree with Ralston’s explanation that the junket was a ‘working trip’?

    If you do, would you say you think the $17,000 price for a European ‘working trip’ is too much, not enough or just about right?

    Would you yourself ever take your family and staff on such a ‘working trip’? Do you typically include your family in ‘working trips’?

    “unless we tackle the issue of better enforcement of existing laws, we’re wasting our time.”

    What advice would you offer the Senate Ethics Committee in dealing with the ethics complaints against Don Balfour to insure they don’t waste time?

    If the committee finds the fortitude to find Balfour in violation of existing law, would you support his receiving the fullest punishment of the law?

  3. Kilkenny Kid says:

    Buzz –

    You nailed it. This orchestrated campaign for “ethics reform” is a complete and utter sham. The current system of complete disclosure is far superior to caps and bans. Disclosure let’s the voters decide if they care about “gifts” of a certain level, or not. All polling I’ve ever seen indicates hat Georgia voters could care less about this issue.

    So one would logically ask “why is this an issue”? It’s only an issue because the AJC wants to sell papers and would like nothing better to suppress all voices but its own. When advocates can’t spend money interacting with legislators, the MSM becomes more powerful and relevant – two things that have been slipping away from them for years.

    Why? Because the AJC reporters and editorial writers are not registered lobbyists. Ironically, neither are their allies in Common Cause nor the “Tea Party.” therefore, “ethics reform” won’t apply to them.

    Whose voices will they mute via a “gift” ban? The same voices that Color of Change is trying to suppress via their campaign against ALEC – the voices of the business community (aka the job creators). Would hate to let them have a voice, especially when jobs creation is the dominant issue of our time!

    Keep it up Buzz – you’re on the side of free speech and trusting voters to make informed decisions. Ignore the AJC – they’re a great contra-indicator.

  4. AMB says:

    Gravy train. Puhlease don’t derail my gravy train now that I just got elected.

    What Buzz really meant.

  5. AMB says:

    No, if you stuff your pockets with goodies from people seeking your vote, you are unethical. Tap dance, Buzz, all you want around the issue.

      • AMB says:

        False issue. I was a federal employee. I could accept nothing-not a meal, not a soda, not a trip. Nothing. Why are you so above that standard of professional behavior?

              • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

                And no, that’s not the amount of a bribe or anything, just how much I agree that a complete gift ban makes a lot more sense than a $100 gift ban which can be more easily skirted.

  6. JoEllen Smith says:

    My first time leaving a comment but I felt compelled.
    I am rather amazed at the lack of outrage at the “Consultant” scam going on among the House Chairs. This is where a major conflict of interest resides, at minimum, and a major potential for unethical behavior. So let’s take the Speaker’s suggestion that “disclosure” is enough and ask for disclosure of these private consulting firms. A Committees Chair can single-handedly squash legislation disagreeable to a company and it will never make it to the House floor for a vote. Meanwhile he could simultaneously take money to “consult” for the same company. No restrictions on WHEN or HOW MUCH money he can take. We, the public, will never know and can never tie it to any legislation in front of his Committee. This is so much more problematic than expensive dinners or trips!

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      “This is where a major conflict of interest resides, at minimum, and a major potential for unethical behavior.”

      Unfortunately, I think that we are well beyond the point where there is just the “potential” for unethical behavior.

      At this point, the major potential for unethical behavior in the Georgia Legislature has been just about fully realized.

  7. UpHere says:

    There are more than one way to get a bill passed other than “blessings” from a committee chair.

  8. joe says:

    § 21-5-9. Penalties

    Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, any person who knowingly fails to comply with or who knowingly violates this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

    WOW!!! That is some pretty tough penalties.

    • SallyForth says:

      Yeah, let’s enforce current laws and give ’em all a big slap on the hand! (just not when they’re reaching out to take a gift) 🙂

  9. Three Jack says:

    Buzz,

    You explained it much better than your speaker. As I have posted on here many times, the proposed gift cap does nothing to force unethical legislators into being ethical. Thank you for stepping up to prove how ridiculous any gift restriction/ban would be.

    The better solution would be to include the following statement on a ballot under the name of any incumbent seeking re-election: ‘Incumbent sponsored by AGL, GA Power, etc. in the amount of $XXXXX during his/her most recent term.’ Other than that, it still boils down to voters taking responsibility to know who they are voting for/against in a given election.

  10. PegM says:

    Buzz – As usual your comments are articulate and intelligent…the rules are in place, monitor, track, and mete out appropriate consequences. The “cap” issue is a sidetrack.

  11. Dave Bearse says:

    The response to the General Assembly’s “common knowledge” that Speaker Richardson committing adultery with a lobbyists whose legislation Richardson was sponsoring was to require transparency in the reporting of lobbying expenses.

    By that standard a $100 gift limitatio is an apt fix for Balfour’s alleged abuse of mileage reimbursement and per diem.

    I think stating gifts routtinely purchase votes is a gross exaggeration. It’s fact however that extravagant gifts influence receipents of common means, if only in the case of legislator recipients that the legislators ought to consciously seek to discount any effect of the gift. People are rightfully concerned that the legislator receipients must have the ability to accurately and routinely discount the influence of extravagant gifts not to0 little, not too much, but just right. (As to noo too much, lobbying isn’t inherently. Over-compensation can thus be undersirable too.)

    The argument that gift limitations will drive gift-giving underground is tantamont to admitting that legislator gift recipients and lobbyist lack good character, if they’fe not outright unethical at heart, and is actually grounds for gift limitations.

    As to gifts of property/objects, no single item worth more than $100, period. And no lobbyist collusion in gifting “complementary” property/objects. As to entertainment,, prohibit, don’t jest limit, gifts disconnected from lobbying. A lobbyist treating a legislator to a professional sporting event for example ought to be required to attend. No lobbyist collision on entertainment gifts to individual or small numbers (exact number to be determined) of legislators either.

    If legislators are underpaid, and I think they are, they’ve only themselves to blame. Abusing perks such as per diem or accepting gifts from lobbyists in order to compensate for inadequate pay is not a high standard of conduct.

  12. John Konop says:

    I have know Buzz for a long time now. We have not always agreed on all issues as demonstrated on this blog. Yet with that said one of the reasons I support Buzz is he has integrity bottom line. Finally if we had more office holders with his level of integrity we would not be even discussing this issue.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      I agree. Like I have stated before, Buzz is the warm-blooded mammal who stands upright in a room full of cold-blooded slithery reptiles (…That’s a compliment, by the way).

      I’ve always wondered why a stand-up guy like Buzz would elect to take a job in a place dominated by people with sociopathic personalities like the Georgia General Assembly.

  13. Bob Loblaw says:

    Hypothethical: You’ve got an open seat in your House district this campaign due to re-districting. There are 3 candidates vying for your party’s nominee, and, because you’re politically active, you take interest in the race.

    All three are good folks, but you know one of the candidates well. An old friend from school, he may or may not have the best chance to win, but you get behind him because you believe in his message and you know he’s a good guy. You write emails and write the campaign a couple of checks, volunteer for him and on Election Day, he wins going away. No runoff. Since there’s no candidate from the other side, he’s the new Rep.

    But I don’t trust that guy past a hundred bucks. More than that and I bet you could buy the S.O.B.

    This is the problem with a lobbyist gift ban. You folks that think someone that can stand in front of the community for public office and win can be bought for a hundred and one bucks? Regardless of the cost, the Members of the G.A. ain’t getting bought for a dinner. And you know the funny thing? I think they sort of like it in an odd way when a lobbyist has rung up a huge tab on them a time or two and they vote against their interests. Reminds the lobbyists who is in charge.

    @JoEllenSmith:

    The 2010 Ethics Bill contained the first substantive “conflicts of interests” provisions with very tough penalties and very clear language. The law needs no update in this regard. If you see a problem, the law provides you an opportunity to lodge your complaint with either the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate.

    Paying legislators more takes no money away from lobbyists to spend on legislators. Not that I think $17k/year is worth it, but its the wrong solution.

    The 4 Ethics bills passed by Republicans since gaining control in 2005 are working. Why do you think the AJC writes so many stories? They’re already written for them when the now three times as frequent disclosure reports come out. It’s like Mad Libs at the AJC. Rep. ______ visited _____ on _____ to dine with _______, a lobbyist for the ______ industry.

    And the idea that “driving lobbying underground” would result and somehow that implicates poor character on the lobbyist & legislator’s part? Not true. The lobbyist could simply make or cause a contribution to the elected officials campaign in the amount of whatever they wished to do costing in excess of $100 and the legislator, in furtherance of the maintaining of public office, could legally use the money to go where the lobbyist’s contribution was intended. All legal.

    Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but mama always said you better be careful who you go to bed with. These groups that think they can align themselves with folks they otherwise would never side with on an issue and because they believe they have strength in numbers are in great danger of lessening their effectiveness on their core issues. TEA Partiers that want lower taxes and less government are siding with Common Cause? A group whose main goal is to have taxpayers fund political campaigns? Can you imagine your tax dollars going to pay for political ads? How can a TEA Partier get in bed with that?

    Just let the law work.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      “And the idea that “driving lobbying underground” would result and somehow that implicates poor character on the lobbyist & legislator’s part? Not true. The lobbyist could simply make or cause a contribution to the elected officials campaign in the amount of whatever they wished to do costing in excess of $100 and the legislator, in furtherance of the maintaining of public office, could legally use the money to go where the lobbyist’s contribution was intended. All legal.”

      I’ll give the benefit of a doubt and not be concerned that you think that indirectly using money and gifts to influence legislators is representative of good character. Arguing that it’s legal is relevant in defining good character, but I hope your standards are such that you consider much more than legality.

      As to letting 2010 legislation work, it’s been a year and a half respect to investigation and disposition of complaints concerning the 2010 campaign. The jury, literally (and understandably so, there’s no need to rush to judgement), is out on Balfour, so the argument to let the law work has merit.

      The new clamor for a $100 gift seems to be exactly what those arguing that transparency that lets the people decide ought to expect. People are seeing and responding accordingly.

      I think your MSM bashing on this count is out of order. I’m definitely more politically active than average, but I don’t have time to review Balfour’s legislative or campaign expenses. How much time do even the politically active do so on their own? Me, maybe a half dozen hours a year, and that’s time simply scratching the surface.

  14. DoubleDawg3 says:

    I agree entirely with Buzz — the issue isn’t gifts or $ limits, it’s ETHICAL PEOPLE — Does accepting a gift of over $100 from a lobbyist make you unethical, especially if that is compared to accepting 500 gifts of $99 from a lobbyist? The answer isn’t caps, it’s electing people with integrity!

    As far as transparency – someone please tell me what is wrong with the current system? Under the current system, I can go online and look up legislator’s gifts. Once there, I can see firsthand what gifts legislators accepted from lobbyists, SUCH AS Sen. Josh McKoon’s $100.95 dinner on February 22nd (violates the cap right there, doesn’t it?), or the $120.57 dinner (later retracted) on February 27th, or the “just under $100” $95.00 meal on March 12th. I’m not trying to pick on Sen. McKoon, who is an OUTSTANDING guy, I’m simply trying to say, what are you fixing by putting a cap on gifts at $100 and do we really have ZERO trust in these people that we, the public, have elected (especially with so very many of them being unchallenged in the elections this year — if there were issues with them, shouldn’t they have been challenged)

    Any “group” like the TP, Common Cause, etc. that is trying to get a “cap” of $100 on gifts is essentially nothing more than a special interest group itself. These groups are down at the Capitol wanting to push their agenda, wanting legislators to bow down and kiss their ring, and they basically want a cap, in my opinion, so that they can “claim” they have political “power/might/lasting ability” and therefore add credibility to their cause (and prop up their own positions and salaries).

    Last point, not sure why no one ever mentions this – if I’m a legislator and the gift cap, or any ban on gifts, passes, then why wouldn’t I simply go to the 10-20 lobbyists that I know I’d normally have lunch/dinner meetings with to discuss legislation, have them join me at a little fundraiser on January 3rd or 4th, after the 12/30 disclosure date of course, have them “max out” in their contribution to me, verses the $500-$1,000 they might have normally given me, THEN, when I still join them for dinner during the legislative session, I’ll just pick up my own tab, as a campaign expense – of course, and none of y’all will ever know that I had dinner with them AND you won’t even know that they contributed big $ to my campaign until the legislative session is OVER. Hmmm….seems to me that would be FAR WORSE than our current system (unless I were a legislator)?

    • Dave Bearse says:

      The current system of transparency was a significant improvement. I’m stingy with compliments for GOP leadership, but the leadership and Ralston deserve praise for improving transparancy.

      Your mention of “later retracted” is the flip side of a weakness, that reports apparently may simply be amended adding without penalty. Remember that possibilites, and not the handful [of non-absentee ballot] fraud amongst tens of millions of votes, was all the justifcation needed to warrant voter photo ID Balfour’s circumstance will help to support or refute this point concernign amending returns without penalty.

      Likewise the current system is weak in that hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts are reported without linking them to specific legislation. (I may be wrong about the electrorate not knowing who is paying for the the gifts, but I don’t think it’s a requirment.) Call me a cynic for thinking extravagant general goodwill unconnected to clients and legislation smacks of retainer.

      The problem with the argument that bad guys will be bad guys anyway is that there is very little if any public benefit (legislators reaping thousands isn’t a public benefit) to unlimited gifts. There is a public benefit in criminalizing lying with respect to influencing legislation, whether the lies are ever committed and if so, caught.

      With repect to your comments below, its important to note that campaign contributions are about as transparent as gifts, aren’t allowed during the session when legislation is actively being developed and enacted, are capped instead of being unlimited, and the electorate knows who is making the contribution, except of course for fraud.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        That was supposed to be:

        “Call me a cynic for thinking extravagant general goodwill GIFTS unconnected to clients and legislation smacks of retainer.”

        “There is a public benefit in criminalizing lying with respect to influencing legislation, whether the lies are ever committed and if so, caught, OR NOT.”

  15. DoubleDawg3 says:

    And as to my last point, I obviously didn’t read “Bob Loblaw’s” post – same point — if you cap the gifts, the smart lobbyists (and they are very smart businessmen and women) will just start dolling out max contributions to the politicos they like and need to meet with during session and then all of the transparency that’s in the system right now (i.e. which lobbyists took which legislators to dinner, or gave them gifts) goes out the door.

  16. saltycracker says:

    The best option for ALL public employees & elected reps is to go to zero gifts except some defined types of meals.

  17. ECobbGOPgirl says:

    Buzz- i think you are a stand up guy but your position on this $100 cap on lobbyist gifts is out of touch with reality. I was an elected official in a large city for over 5 years. Never once did I need to have a dinner paid for or trips paid for to discuss ordinances or zoning coming before the City Council. Meetings were held in my offices at city hall or at the Starbucks. Email is an amazing thing and those folks who were sending us substantive legal changes to our ordinances could email us their ideas/changes. I could email or call them with questions/comments. Again, no dinners necessary.
    I can appreciate that you are on PP carrying water for the leadership folks who regularly accept such dinners and trips and do not want to stop taking them, but really they are not necessary to your day to day duties of understanding legislation.
    All of the substantive issues can be handled via power point, email, and/or phone calls.
    I know because I have been there without expensive dinners, Braves tickets or trips.
    Try my way and you get to spend a whole lot more time with the people who really matter – your family

  18. cheapseats says:

    I can see the point Brockway is making and agree to a certain point but, it’s not really the monetary value of the gift as much as the access that some of them will buy. The average citizen can call, write, or email their representative and have their 15 to 60 seconds of access to try to explain their position. But, most of us can’t get the 1 to 4 hours with our representative that a lobbyist can get with tickets to a sporting event or a golf outing or such.

    I know that I’m not nearly as persuasive in 60 seconds as I can be in an hour or more. That’s just me. Right now, I need to talk to my state Senator about an important and overdue change in a sales tax law/policy about which he knows absolutely nothing and it won’t make any headlines or be good campaign material. But, it would take me at least an hour to school him on what the issue involves so, my chances are pretty much zero right now. If I could take him to a Braves game or get him out on the golf course, I could probably get him on board.

    So, limiting the money as a cap is probably stupid – it’s the access and face-time that is the real issue when it comes to professional lobbyists vs. the “Average Joe”. It’s not bribery that is the problem – it’s really about who gets to have the time to present their case.

  19. Don McAdam says:

    It’s kinda funny. When I was organizing an ethics forum for last month, I traded several emails with the infamous lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. He probably agrees, in part with the writer that a gift cap would not be effective. A complete ban on lobbyist gifts is what Abramoff would like to see.

    Also, even if a cap became law, doing so would almost certainly not change our status of last in the nation for susceptibility to corruption ( http://www.stateintegrity.org/georgia ). What’s needed is a slew of changes and funding for the agencies responsible for compliance. For those who think no changes are needed, please read some of the report. According to the author, the single best measure that could be enacted would be to apply the Open Records Act to the legislature.

    Happy reading!

  20. Folks, let me tell you about what I’ve experienced in my two years in the Legislature. I don’t go out to eat very often. I’m at home with my family most evenings. But when I do go out almost never is legislation discussed. Lobbyists are people too and they’re off the clock. Plus they can talk to us during the day at the Capitol.

    As for average people not having a chance to get our attention that is simply not true. A handful of thoughtful emails or phone calls from constituents can change a legislator’s vote, and not just mine. Don’t send one of those form emails from Change.org or some such place, tell me what you think.

    The debate on the table is a gift cap, and I’m trying to point out that a gift cap alone is not real ethics reform. A complete gift ban makes more sense logically, and if you want that get the people pushing for a gift cap to push for a gift ban. Then give us a raise so folks who have to live in Atlanta three months a year can still afford to be Legislators.

    Since I’m saying things no consultant would want me saying I’ll tell you we’re underpaid and if we keep making it more and more difficult to serve you won’t have middle income guys like me in the Legislature much longer. You’ll end up with only rich folks, and that’s not what anybody wants.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      As to not going out to dinner often, you’re a freshman, not a Committee Chair. Do you not receive many invitations, or do you decline often?

      Beyond that, you’re atypical. Your e-mail to me, a non-constituent, in responding to a matter before a Committee that you serve on puts you in a group of about 2% of General Assembly representation.

      It’s likely that some lobbyists giving you gifts in some cases aren’t representing any of your consituents, including corporate constituents. I expect that often only a fraction of lobbyist effort in lobbying you concerns constituents of yours. (There are billboards in your district, but 98% of the state billboard trade association lobbyist’s effort doesn’t concern your constituents.)

      A gift cap is real ethics reform given common use of the word “reform.” Changing the basis of motor vehicle taxation from an annual ad valorem tax to a “title fee” that’s more than 30 times the cost of the service with respect to a new car purchase, and exempting manufacturers from taxes on energy qualified 2012 tax legislation as “reform”. Those tax changes account for what, a few percent of state revenue?

      Personal Financial Disclosure Statements must be filed, so if nobody wants us ending up with only rich folk legislators, then we won’t have only rich folks. Whether nothing happens, and we end up with all rich folk, or transparency results in not all rich folk, representation will indeed suffer. More than transparency alone is necessary. We’re not yet seeing that.

      Extravagant gifts give the appearance that the receiver is beholden to the giver, whether that’s actually occurring or not. Attempted bribery effectively isn’t a crime in an enviroment of unrestricted giving of extravagant gifts.

    • John Konop says:

      All I know is I bought Buzz a beer a few times and I have not gotten anything. Heck he even argues with me on this blog. Can I get my beer money back 🙂

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      “I agree, our legislators are not paid enough. $17,000 per year is not nearly enough.”

      I highly disagree that our legislators are not paid enough at this point, especially in the midst of ongoing reports of too many of them having continuing lapses in both moral and ethical judgement.

      Immediately after being caught stealing from the taxpayers red-handed (Don Balfour) and lying and misrepresenting to the voters (gambling tout-turned-Senate Majority Leader
      Chip Rogers) is definitely NOT the time to ask for a pay raise.

      I say clean the place out of all of as many crooks, thieves and psychopaths as we can, institute a complete ban on ALL gifts to legislators from lobbyists, keep the pay as it is and let’s see if we can attract more honest people like Buzz who might actually be interested in serving the public instead of a bunch of pondscum who only seems to be interested serving their own pockets with a mix of private and public money from and gifts from lobbyists and taxpayers.

      Only after the Georgia Legislature as a whole can demonstrate that they are able to conduct themselves in a much more dignified moral and ethical non-fratboyish manner in a way that is not akin to a scene of the movie “Animal House” for an extended period of time (no stealing of taxpayer funds, no fraud, no shady real estate deals, no sex scandals, no repeatedly awkward “conflicts-of-interest”, no lobbyist-funded trips around the globe, no DUI arrests after a night of heavy drinking at multiple lobbyist-funded high-end dinners, no repeated unexplainable misallocation of funds, etc), then and ONLY then should we consider giving our legislators a pay raise.

      I know that not every one of our state legislators is a totally self-centered sociopathic piece of slime, in fact, hopefully, most of them are far from it.

      But there have been more than enough of the bad ones doing either really questionable or outright really dishonest things to reflect exceptionally poorly on the entire legislature.

      All of the good men and women who actually come to Atlanta with the truly pure intentions of serving Georgians should not have to have their reputations suffer just because they are being led (off of a cliff) by a bunch of psychotic leaders with overinflated egos who don’t seem to care how badly the reputation of the legislative body as a whole is damaged or badly the citizens of this state are hurt by their immoral, unethical and criminal actions just as long they get paid, pampered, wined and dined to their increasingly unreasonably high standards of so-called excellence.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Odds are that a proposal to ban all gifts and tighten control/limit ostensibly reimburement compensation without an increase in pay will lead to richer, more retiree (already well-represented as a class) and more incompetent representation.

        Doubling pay would cost $4M, some of which could be offset by reimbureement reductions. Representation that improves the overall efficiency/effectiveness of state government by a mere 0.02% would pay for a $4M an increase (or an even smaller fractional improvement if there is increased efficiency/effectiveness of federal funds administered by the state).

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          I’m not completely against giving them a pay raise, but would like to see the legislature go at least a few years (preferably 3-5 years, pun intended) without some kind of ridiculous ethics scandal before the idea is seriously entertained.

          Like I stated above, the good people shouldn’t have to suffer and be punished for the sins of the criminals amongst them, but that’s the way it is as the idiots often mess it up for everybody.

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          “Odds are that a proposal to ban all gifts and tighten control/limit ostensibly reimburement compensation without an increase in pay will lead to richer, more retiree (already well-represented as a class) and more incompetent representation.”

          Retirees may already be well-represented as a class within the Georgia Legislature, but unfortunately it seems that the incompetent element is vastly OVER-represented within state government as has been so aptly and increasingly demonstrated in recent years.

          Now, make no mistake, that element of incompetence has always been more than abundantly represented within Georgia state government as was demonstrated during the nearly century-and-a-half of domination by the Democrats, but it seems as if a virtulent form of incompetence has been dangerously threatening to completely overrun the place as of late.

  21. DeKalb Wonkette says:

    I am a lobbyist by dint of the definition in GA law even though any of the organizations I have represented since 1987 are prohibited under IRS rules from political campaign intervention, including by monetary or in-kind contributions and including partisan activity of any sort.

    Yet every time one of these organizations so much as invites lawmakers to a reception, I have to report the associated expense to the Ethics Commission where reporters and the public can create an uproar over it. Under the current law, I have to report the bagel and coffee served to an elected official who simply serves as a board member of the organization because GA law requires the reporting of expenditures made for any reason. Many public officials serve on the boards of nonprofit and civic organizations and do so because they deeply care about the community.

    I wish the organization I represent now and have represented in the past really had the influence that the public thinks it gets by virtue of these “contributions” but that is far from the truth. What’s more, if a legislator doesn’t want a public record that he or she met with you, your appointment will be in his or her office rather than a coffee shop or restaurant where conversation could be more frank.

    As someone who has been in the halls as long as I have can tell you, the people with real influence never have to set foot in the Capitol. One phone call is enough to sway a vote. And I can tell you who among my colleagues isn’t to be trusted as a straight-shooter.

    What the public fails to capture by reliance on Ethics Commission “expenditure reports” under existing law: hires of lawmakers’ family members, promises of careers, housing or monetary awards after he or she has retired from political office and, of course, sex. As for the Speaker’s now infamous trip: What a shame that Georgia government can’t or won’t pay to expose lawmakers to, in that case, transportation planning successes in other nations.

    Georgia’s Ethics Law is a shell game wherein only those who play by the rules get hurt.

      • DeKalb Wonkette says:

        Thanks for the question, Dave!

        First of all, I would align our lobbying laws with IRS standards for what does/doesn’t constitute lobbying, especially for 501 (c) (3) charities. Such entities have a right to an insubstantial amount of nonpartisan issue-based lobbying on matters that pertain to its mission and those that they serve.

        As it is I have to keep two sets of books: One for the IRS which cares only about what I spent on direct and grassroots lobbying and another for the state. The state, of course, is interested in expenditures to lawmakers made for any purpose. The bagel and coffee provided to an office holder who happens to sit on a board has zero to do with any attempt to influence legislation or rule-making but I have to report it. Ditto receptions held for an organization’s stakeholders to which lawmakers are invited. Keep in mind that an organization that doesn’t meet the threshold of the state’s definition for “lobbyist” doesn’t have to report any of these expenses at all!

        Second, I understand that the public is suspicious of anyone that has to be registered as a lobbyist but the fact of the matter is that we do provide information that a lawmaker is unlikely to get anywhere else. At the end of the day, all I really have to “peddle” is my own integrity or else nobody in elected office would ever talk with me. I can’t make campaign contributions, of course.

        I think we need to distinguish between lobbyists we’re just mad at because the policy-making process is what it is and others – many who don’t even have to register! – who really do have an outsized influence over lawmakers. For example, it may be useful to look more closely at PACs than the individual lobbyists.

        I am not sure precisely how to capture this latter goal into statute although I have thought about it quite a lot. The first step, it would seem to me, is to to do some research on other states’ ethics/lobbying laws and how they are working. I’ve not had the time to do this but had been very hopeful that a legislative study committee could have. That did not happen, of course.

        Georgia is a state that historically had very weak civic participation. Now that the public seems to be interested, I think it is time for a conversation on how we promote it while at the same time clamping down on abuses. No system is perfect of course but what we have now only penalizes those that play by the rules.

        • John Konop says:

          Do you think a former office holder should be banned from lobbying for a period of time? Do you think a current office holder should be able to be a lobbyist?

          • DeKalb Wonkette says:

            John: I’ll take the second of your questions first. If a current office-holder is lobbying for an issue that is within the jurisdiction of the elected body that he or she serves on, the answer is emphatically no, they should not be able to lobby. If not, I suppose that there isn’t a conflict of interest but it does make me feel squeamish.

            As for whether a former office holder should be banned from lobbying, I think the question is really “do you want to know that s/he is lobbying by requiring registration?” or “do you want that person to share their influence thru indirect means?” The fact is that a former lawmaker is going to have certain areas of expertise and will be in demand whichever way you cut it (provided of course that they were respected by their former colleagues).

            Cheers!

  22. greencracker says:

    Re: ending up with only rich folks in Leg
    There’s a researcher working on a story, in fact, about net wealth of legislators over the last three decades. Preliminary observation is that you don’t have the ultra-rich anymore, those very rich country barons like Rusty Kidd’s father. From what the researcher can gather, he’s having a hard time finding anyone with net worth in the high eight figures much less nine.

    But what if you did have a Bernie Marcus or a Tyler Perry in the Leg? People so used to being so powerful, wonder how they would react to a party leader trying to force a party plank they don’t care for? Or a “consultant” telling them what to say in public?

    /devil’s advocate

    • Dave Bearse says:

      The current common defintion of rich is the top 1%. Nine figure types are what, the top 0.01% or 0.0001%? A more interesting story might be the rate of change in net wealth, before, during, and after service. (Experience and knowledge gained, not only connections, can contribute to a large increase afterward.)

      A Marcus or Perry in the General Assembly would be simply a hobby interest. Their ability to exercise influence is much outside than inside.

      • greencracker says:

        A Marcus or Perry in the leg would be very interesting I think ; they’re not going to ever be tempted by rinky-dink seven-figure soft loans or whatnot. I suspect they’re not really susceptible to flattery or threats either.

        If someone could literally buy their own caribbean island — and one for everyone in the legislature too — but they chose to spend cold winter months in Atlanta, what kind of politicians would they make?

  23. Don McAdam says:

    Some people want to dismiss reforms because they believe that lobbying doesn’t really work. Very few people think that large corporations and industry organizations would waste money on lobbying if it were not of use. In fact there are numerous studies that indicate that there is a great payoff for lobbying. In Washington there are five lobbyists per member of congress representing Wall Street and other financial interests.

    Some people (legislators mostly) who say that disclosure/transparency is the key to honest government. However, we rarely hear these same people call for the application of the Open Records Act to the legislature.

    If you are concerned about the corrupting influence of money in our politics, please consider visiting this site and joining their efforts to improve the ethics of our political systems.
    http://www.rootstrikers.org/

  24. wicker says:

    The only area where I kinda/sorta agree with Buzz – and Ralston – is that Common Cause and the AJC could have cared less about ethics laws when the Democrats ran this state, despite several serious scandals under the gold dome happening during that time. I am always suspect of “good government” attempts to make the other side live under rules that you never wanted when you were in power. Democrats didn’t want nonpartisan redistricting commissions when they controlled the legislatures in Georgia and in most of the country, and Democrats didn’t want campaign finance reform back when they had the advantage thanks to Hollywood, unions, the dot.coms, and their gigantic progressive organization ground game.

    Another thing: ethics/good government laws are no substitute for good leaders who propose and enact good policy. Usually people latch onto that when they have no real positive or governing agenda, and yes I do suspect this of the Georgia Tea Party for getting behind this, because in a low tax, low regulation state that still has PLENTY of problems like Georgia, it gives them something to support after being the movement of NO on everything else. And yes, some conservatives jumped onto the ethics cause only when and because a Georgia legislative leader began to support – gasp! – rail projects after being courted by a rail company. It is as if the “pro-Republican” interests like Georgia Power spreading around as much as they want to get whatever they want – including blocking a good solar energy bill that has been enacted by 30 states, and will get even better as the price of solar panels keeps dropping – is fine, but when the liberal rail advocates start using it, then THAT’S when it gets to be bad!

    All the ethics bills in the world won’t get better governance out of a bunch of fellows whose best idea seems to be a back to school shopping sales tax holiday. Of course, Brockway never made that point, but somebody needs to.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      All very good points.

      One key thing that you pointed out:

      “The only area where I kinda/sorta agree with Buzz – and Ralston – is that Common Cause and the AJC could have cared less about ethics laws when the Democrats ran this state, despite several serious scandals under the gold dome happening during that time.”

      It is the liberal establishment’s virtually total disregard and ignorance of serious scandals during the decades and decades and decades of Democrat rule that has in great part caused the state’s current ethics problems to be as seemingly monsterously severe and as overwhelming as they are today.

      You are very correct that when the Democrats were in charge, the liberal stalwarts at the AJC, Common Cause and the like were strangely silent about the rather unseemly goings-on that were happening within state government, slient almost to the point that the scandals and shenanigans seemingly didn’t exist.

      But now that the Republicans thoroughly and completely dominate state government it is, to paraphrase Gwinnett County DA Danny Porter, a “culture of corruption” that must be stopped at all costs before it completely destroys this state!

      Maybe if the AJC and company had demonstrated a sense-of-urgency about corruption when the Dems were in charge and DONE THEIR JOBS as so-called journalists in helping to clean out and rid the hornets’ nest of the corrupt element, maybe this problem would not be so bad and our state government would not be in such dire straits with corruption and the notable lack-of-ethics and morals threatening to completely overrun the place.

      • wicker says:

        I don’t disagree with the culture of corruption thing. After all, I wanted Karen Handel to win 🙂 It is just that I think that Common Cause and the AJC are beating the ethics drum in order to lay the groundwork for the case of why we need to return the Democrats to power a couple of years from now.

        As far as corruption goes, I still say that the biggest problem with the Georgia GOP is that most of them used to be Democrats, whether party-switchers like Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue or the white flight types that are so influential in the suburbs. Those folks know that so long as they don’t have “D”s behind their name, and by extension are not associated with Atlanta, then most of the people who put them in office are going to presume that they are A-OK and totally ignore what they are doing.

        Ethics laws won’t fix this. The only thing that can fix this is better elected officials, and those won’t come until we can get better voters. Things won’t get better until the voters who elect these people go to the ballot box with something other than how much they despise Atlanta on the brain. And since they will be voting against Atlanta (including but not limited to T-SPLOST) AND Obama in 2012, look for the next group of Georgia legislators and suburban city and county leaders to be even worse, if that is possible.

  25. Don McAdam says:

    The people in office now are by and large decent and honest. But they were elected in a corrupted system, one that relies upon corporate campaign money. The candidate with the most money usually wins. As such the candidate that is most corporate friendly wins.

    Once in office the legislator is looking to get re-elected and the corporate interests are looking to oblige with fundraisers. And so many people look at that system and rightly wonder if the campaign money (and gifts) have any influence on the agenda and bills passed by our legislature.

    • So corporations should have no say in the political process? What about Labor Unions? They spend tons of money and staff campaigns with volunteers. Does that influence the political process?

      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        It doesn’t matter whether it’s from mega-corporations on the right side of the political scale or labor unions on the left side of the political scale, gargantuan sums of money strongly-influence the political process no matter where it comes from.

        Though it should be noted that labor unions are influencing the political process with increasingly diminishing returns these days which was recently just so vividly demonstrated in traditionally union-dominated Wisconsin last week, as the continuing decline of manufacturing in the U.S. means that there are increasingly fewer people who have to come in contact with labor unions which, it should also be noted, were considered a very necessary EVIL in days past to counteract the even more very ruthless evil of corporations which at the time were known to willfully abuse laborers without the fear of the unions.

        It’s okay for corporations as well as labor unions to have a say in the political process that directly affects them too, just like it directly affects individual voters.

        But corporations and (currently diminishing) labor unions should not be able to completely dominate the political process to the detriment of the average individual voter.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        Labor unions spending tons of money in Georgia? Who knew that all of their contributions were provided in pennies?

        Sure your’e not reading out of state talking points used to defend Citizens United? Only 4% of employed Georgians are members of labor unions. Southern Company/Georgia Power by itself may well have spent as much on lobbying SB31 than all the unions in the state together contirbuted to campaign contributions that year.

        • Dave Bearse says:

          And BTW I commend you for presently your viewpoint on gift limitations here, knowing criticism would come from many sides.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      Though they’re decent and honest they have to able able to discount the influence of an extravagant gift “just right” with respect to what is being sought by the giver, and if that is successfully achieved, insure the gifts don’t feed a sense of entitlement.

      The latter is indeed a serious concern if compensation is inadequate.

  26. xdog says:

    I read Tom Crawford’s latest in Athen’s The Flagpole. Crawford went out and talked with McCracken Poston who took on Tom Murphy to get his ethics bill passed in 1992. Poston’s remarks seem relevant, especially on the subject on leadership control and direction.

    “He agrees that the current House speaker, David Ralston, is making the same mistake that Murphy did 20 years ago in trying to block the passage of ethics reform legislation.

    “In my day with Speaker Murphy, it was not a battle of good versus evil,” Poston said. “We do a disservice when we make this into a good versus evil issue. Tom Murphy, individually, was a very ethical person.”

    Poston said that Murphy, like Ralston, understood that lobbyists helped the House leadership maintain control over the 180 individuals who make up that chamber through the money spent to entertain legislators.

    “I realized I was challenging a very institutionalized lever he could use on committee chairmen,” Poston recalled. “By knowing which chairmen liked to eat at the Capitol City Club, and which ones liked to play golf, he could keep control of the place a lot better.”

    “The lobbyists were the lever,” Poston said. “He could use lobbyists to persuade and pressure House members. Otherwise, you had to actually get down and argue the merits of the issue—that’s hard to do with 180 people. That is going to make his job of leadership a lot harder.”

    http://flagpole.com/news/2012/jun/06/capitol-impact/

  27. CobbGOPer says:

    Tell you what, Buzz. We’ll stop making all this noise about ethics reform if you guys agree to term limits in the General Assembly.

    Deal?

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