Dalton Mayor David Pennington sent out an email about the importance of meaningful ethics reform in Georgia government. It’s quite a good read.
Ethical Behavior … we know it when we see it
Georgia’s economy is hamstrung by outdated economic and education policies, resulting in too many of our fellow citizens struggling to get by and requiring long term public assistance. Bold policy changes are required if Georgia is to regain her competitive edge, but change is hard. While the status quo is not serving us well, it is familiar; and we will follow our elected leaders down an uncharted path only if we trust them. That’s why ethics reform is crucial.
While not a panacea, ethics reform can provide a solid foundation to ease political ethical conflicts. The current reform effort is focused solely on monetary gifts to legislators. While a necessary component, gift caps alone are insufficient. There are two additional reforms that would go a long way toward fostering trust in state government. First, require the state legislature to operate under the open meetings and open records law. Second, require a two-year hiatus before a state legislator can accept a fulltime job in state government.
Attorney General Sam Olens’ web site headline states, “Government operates best when it operates openly”. The Attorney General made headlines last year when he led the effort to strengthen Georgia’s open meetings law and increase penalties for non-compliance. Our legislature believes this law helps insure transparency and accountability, and it requires adherence by city councils, school boards, county commissions and numerous other entities. But our legislature exempts its own meetings from this law – one of only 13 state legislatures to do so. Shining a light on the workings of these meetings will help prevent abuse, especially when budget questions are under consideration. Openness fosters trust.
2 Year Hiatus
A legislator who opts to leave his elected post to take a full time state job undermines public trust. Too many sitting legislators have done this. There has been a cost not only in trust but also in real dollars since local taxpayers have been forced to pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars for special elections. It’s telling that legislators who ran on a limited government platform were willing to take full time state government jobs. A 2-year hiatus requirement would boost public trust.
New laws alone won’t restore trust in state government because laws cannot totally prevent unethical behavior. We observe actions and judge accordingly. Most disheartening is that our leaders continue to find workarounds so they can claim they are not increasing taxes. The T-SPLOST (soundly defeated in most regions) attempted to coerce us to tax ourselves. Last year’s birthday tax bill provided for taxing private vehicle sales and these comprise 60% of all sales. This session’s hospital bed tax bill shifted taxing authority to an unelected board with authority to increase this tax from the current 1.45% to 6% if the state budget calls for that amount of Medicaid spending. Our state legislators may claim that they did not increase our taxes, but in reality they did. Worse, they violated our trust.
Georgia has wonderful assets, but our struggles continue. The economic and educational paradigms have changed, but our leaders continue to tinker with incremental changes. If they can build a reserve of public trust, then they can make the bold policy changes required because we will support them. But building that trust reserve will take more than enacting gift caps with loopholes. We know ethical behavior when we see it.
Mayor of Dalton