Today’s Courier Herald Column:
“Do you support ending the current practice of unlimited gifts from lobbyists to state legislators by imposing a $100 cap on such gifts.”
“Do you support ending the current practice permitting unlimited gifts from lobbyists to state legislators?”
The first of the above questions appears on GOP ballots for the July 31st primary. The second will be answered by those who request a Democratic primary ballot. By the end of the month, Georgians and more specifically Georgia’s politicians will have a clear statement on how voters of both parties feel about the need to curtail lobbyist influence under the Gold Dome, as well as provide a much broader sense of the need to reform our woefully inadequate ethics laws.
Voters should vote yes on either of these questions. Legislators need to receive a strong message, even if the message is too narrow and incomplete. That message should ideally be coupled with several incumbents losing their seats. Alas, the deck in Georgia is stacked so heavily in favor of incumbents that this is not likely to happen.
Critics of gift caps note with trite phrases such things as “we just need to elect honest people” and in the same breath “if we pass gift caps, we’ll just drive the spending underground where it will continue unreported”. It sounds like, based on that second excuse, that we – including politicians – already know the system already contains a good number of people who are less than honest. There is also a good likelihood that there is unreported spending going on now, even without caps.
Take for example Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who told Atlanta’s WXIA news that the lobbyists who reported taking him to a charity bird hunt in South Georgia should not have been disclosed. His reasoning? He went as a “celebrity” participant. Therefore, the fact that lobbyists paid for travel and hunting fees should not have been made aware to voters in his opinion.
It is also not uncommon for third parties to attend events with lobbyists and officials and pick up the tab, thus eliminating the requirement for a disclosure to be made. Under our current system, “transparency” is merely an illusion, and our current reporting system is a mere sample of what activities are conducted on behalf of our government leaders.
The fact that legislators, other elected officials, and staffers can receive unlimited gifts which may or may not be disclosed is troubling. More troubling is that those in government service have no obligation to self-report what they receive. If a proper disclosure is not made, only the lobbyist can currently be fined for the omission. Electeds can continue to request and receive expensive meals, trips, event tickets, and most anything else they want. If it gets disclosed, then the system is said to work. If it doesn’t, we never know. Comprehensive ethics reform would balance the responsibility from those who give with those who receive.
House Speaker David Ralston riled up the grassroots GOP base at the State convention in May by chiding supporters of ethics reform for siding with “media elites and liberal special interest groups” over the issue. GOP activists were right to be offended. His remarks were poorly timed and missed their mark. While the Speaker’s office eventually clarified to say that GOP activists who want change were being used to promote a separate agenda, they also gave the strong impression that the Speaker’s office would stand in the way of meaningful reform.
The Speaker has since suggested that ethics reform should begin with independent oversight, and on this he is correct. Georgia’s elected officials have proven time and time again that they are not capable of policing themselves. The system is designed for self-protection as part of self-perpetuation. It is too easy to look the other way when a peer crosses ethical lines.
Congressman Austin Scott, during his last term as a member of Georgia’s General Assembly, offered a resolution that would authorize statewide grand juries to investigate allegations against public officials. This would be a real first step in fixing attitudes and expectations of those at the capitol.
Under our current structure, incumbents have no fear. AJC columnist Jay Bookman has noted that Georgia’s public officials seem to have lost the fear of the voters. With a system of unenforceable ethics laws and a legal system of accepting unlimited gifts, they also do not fear investigations or reprisals.
Georgians should vote yes on gift caps to send a message. They should then follow that up with phone calls and emails to their elected officials that they demand independent oversight to enforce laws that are currently too easy to ignore.