Progress, Optimism For Ethics Reform

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston is now expected to propose an ethics reform package that will include a total ban on gifts and gratuities from lobbyists for lawmakers and other elected officials.  This was first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution late last week.

The proposal represents a change from his earlier position where the House Speaker said gift caps were not an effective solution and would just drive spending underground, thus continuing to exist but unreported for public scrutiny.  This also is significantly stronger limit than the $100 cap proposal backed by Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus and backed by a “gift cap pledge” pushed by Common Cause and TEA Party groups, but rejected by most incumbents of both chambers.

Speaker Ralston urged Republicans at the State GOP Convention in May to resist following the lead of “media elites and liberal interest groups”, believing that the agenda of some of those pushing ethics reform was not ethics reform at all.  However, a resolution passed at the same convention combined with a ballot question for both GOP and Democratic primary voters demonstrated overwhelming support for restrictions on gifts from lobbyists.

In addition, the resounding defeat of T-SPLOST referendums throughout much of Georgia seemed to hinge not only on an aversion to pay additional taxes, but to a general lack of trust in elected officials.  Those working to pass T-SPLOSTs continually heard that the projects would favor selected insiders and that Georgia’s political class should not be given an additional ten billion dollars to reward the well connected.

Despite a pre-selected project list from locally elected officials the perception of cronyism and influence peddling could not be overcome.  Leaders who have remained tone deaf on the need for true ethics reform now seem to understand that something must be done.  The loss of several incumbents within the majority caucuses against candidates who ran campaigns on reform platforms seems to have provided some additional motivation.

The news of the Speaker’s change of heart on gift caps was immediately greeted by cynics claiming it was a move of political jujitsu with members of the Senate.  Careful observers noted that many Senators made public displays of signing the gift cap pledge within days after Ralston telling the GOP convention that he would effectively block gift caps.  Some were the same ones that blocked the legislation just months prior.  The implication was that it was safe for them to pander to voters and even vote for a cap, knowing that Ralston would do the heavy political lifting to keep it from becoming law on the House side.

Those same cynics now claim that this will enable the House to pass a bill allowing no lobbyist spending on legislators while the Senate passes a bill with $100 gift caps.  Each could then claim they did what the people wanted and blame the other side for nothing becoming law.  The status quo would prevail, and all incumbents would be able to claim they had voted for tougher ethics laws.

Instead, for now, there is time to take these gestures as moments of progress and understanding that something must be done.  There will be plenty of time to criticize if the cynics are correct.  Now should instead be the time to focus on what must be done to get true ethics reform, and not another whitewash such as the 2010 package that looked good in headlines but actually weakened the ability to enforce the rules as passed.

Beyond gift caps or bans, Georgians must continue to insist that there is independent enforcement and accountability.  There must be a clear system to investigate and if necessary prosecute those who break our rules and laws.  This must be outside the influence of the appointment and appropriations process.

Georgia voters spoke loudly in the July primaries.  Resounding support for gift caps was coupled with a strong defeat of T-SPLOST and the loss of several incumbents.  The voters are angry, and it is affecting the ability of the majority to govern.

Republicans have one more chance to get this right.  Let’s continue to express our desire to our elected officials that they not play games here, but ensure that there is a true ethics reform package signed into law early next year.


    • Senator,

      I just hope all this talking actually leads somewhere and we are still not having this conversation after the 2013 session. Do you feel that the Senate and House can work this out?

      BTW, are you running for something in 2016?

      • JRM2016 says:


        I believe there is willingness to come together to get a consensus bill. Time will tell if I am right.

        JRM2016, which is my e-mail address [email protected]–is an e-mail/handle I have had since I was in college.


  1. Charlie says:

    It’s been brought to my attention that the Speaker’s stance on a full elimination of gifts from lobbyists shouldn’t have been received with such surprise. Apparently Speaker Ralston telegraphed his intention a month ago during a statewide fly around (which I belive was promiting T-SPLOST but the matter came up during Q&A). Ralston responded that an alternative to the $100 gift cap was no gifts at all. The press in attendance didn’t seem to get that it was an active consideration at the time.

  2. Patrick T. Malone says:


    I think the speaker’s original position was opposition to $100 gift cap ($100 for breakfast, $100 for Lunch, $100 for Dinner, $100 for cocktails, $100 for golf, $100 for hotel, $100 for airfare = $700/day = quite a junket sponsored by 7 lobbyists). The total ban seems to make more sense if there really is a sense that lobbyists are actually buying votes. I tend to believe lobbyists were actually buying time to provide information that may or may not impact a vote.

    • Charlie says:

      I think the overall point is that we’re hopefully beginning a meaningful discussion on what ethics reform needs to look like. Leaders on both the House and Senate are now engaged in that discussion instead of pretending that the 2010 reform bill was a sufficient fix. As such, I’m much more interested in how we move forward and getting the best final product possible than parsing words of the past.

      We have a chance to get this right, and to do that will require a lot of folks formerly on opposite sides on this issue to come together. If we do that, Georgia wins. If not, continued trouble and lack of public confidence in any major initiative.

      This is it. Let’s hope we get it done.

  3. cheapseats says:

    While I’ve never believed that lobbying is inherently evil, there does seem to be too much of a good thing.

    It is absolutely true that lobbyist gain access to elected officials and provide them with valuable information. It is also true that lobbyist have this job – and usually no other job – so they can be available to elected officials in ways that no ordinary citizen can ever hope to be. I can’t leave my business for a few weeks and go hang out under the Gold Dome in hopes of taking some legislator to lunch, dinner, coffee, etc. no matter who is paying for it.

    It is also quite true that lobbyist are under no legal or ethical requirement to explain both sides of any issue – they get paid to persuade. So, I don’t think you can argue against the formula that “money=persuasion” even if we are generous enough to grant that both parties are good, ethical, decent people. I’m not talking about bribery or anything sinister. If my job is to sell you something then, I’m not going to spend time telling you why you shouldn’t buy my products or even why my competitors products might be just as good.

    Having worked with lots of elected officials in the past, I know first-hand that they don’t have the time to independently research every aspect of every law or policy decision in front of them – there are just too many of them. So, if they get a good “sales pitch” from the one side that has the money to pay a lobbyist then, they will probably use those “facts” to make their decision.

    The gift caps and/or bans won’t do much of anything at all. Seriously, are we going to try to limit the amount of campaign cash from the PACs – I believe that’s where the real money changes hands and those PACs all have lobbyist working for them so…nothing is going to change other than a handful of people feeling good about their great “accomplishments” of deciding who is paying for lunch.

  4. debbie0040 says:

    I am hopefully optimistic that Speaker Ralston will pursue the ban. A good leader will alter their course if reason is presented for them to do so. Speaker Ralston is showing those signs so for.

    There will be tremendous pressure on both chambers to reach a compromise and pass true ethics reform and it does not stop with gift bans. Re-structuring the Georgia Ethics Commission so it has real power and is not appointed by elected officials it is supposed to oversee needs to be done and it needs to be fully funded. This was really bought home by their findings in regard to complaints bought against Gov. Deal. People don’t have faith in the Ethics Commission at all and most activists feel they will not punish the powerful elected officials that appointed them. Most have zero faith in them after their recent ruling.

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