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.