YES On Gift Caps, But More Is Needed

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.

13 comments

  1. oldman45 says:

    I support a law against all gifts…and prosecute the guilty. Maybe that way we could get some of those prima donnas out of office. Most of their heads are so big now they’re about to explode. No gifts period!

  2. saltycracker says:

    Charlies on a roll – Good first step on “gifts”

    The tough one will be if he likes casinos and dislikes another edu-teat.

  3. Bull Moose says:

    Great column Charlie! I’m in total favor of a statewide grand jury that would investigate allegations of ethical wrongdoing.

  4. Dave Bearse says:

    “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.”

    Interesting skirt, and a poweful point. What is transparent to view may be only the tip of an iceburg.

    • John Walraven says:

      Interesting skirt? How about unlawful failure to disclose. When “third parties,” (i.e. clients) pick up a tab, that does not eliminate a requirement for disclosure of that expenditure. Its actually the opposite and is codified at 21-5-73(e)(1), which reads:

      (e) Reports filed by lobbyists shall be verified and shall include:
      (1) A description of all expenditures, as defined in Code Section 21-5-70, or the value thereof made on behalf of or for the benefit of a public officer or on behalf of or for the benefit of a public employee for the purpose of influencing a public officer by the lobbyist or employees of the lobbyist or by any person on whose behalf the lobbyist is registered if the lobbyist has actual knowledge of such ex-penditure.

  5. But if we cap lobbyist gifts at $100, how would Stan Wise ever be able to attend the Masters? Or go to galas at the Cobb Energy Centre? It’s not as if he’s able to afford those golf tickets or $1200 galas on his meager $116k salary. So what if he’s received nearly $14k in gifts in just his current term? Doesn’t everyone get those kind of perks at their job?

    • Harry says:

      Stan Wise isn’t my favorite either, but may be preferable to the alternative who avoids answering questions about her positions on environmental issues. You have a choice between someone who bends over backwards to please those he is supposed to be regulating, and someone who because of her green ideology may do harm to the state’s economy.

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