Today’s Courier Herald Column:
There are ten business days left for the 2013 session of the Georgia General Assembly. If all goes as planned the legislature will wrap up its business this month, likely the Thursday evening before Easter weekend begins the next day. While matters of budget will take up a good bit of the remaining time, ethics reform remains the headline issue.
The House has already offered an ethics reform proposal, focusing on limiting certain gifts to officials as well as expanding the definition of who must register as a lobbyist. The Senate addressed some of the gift caps in their operating rules at the beginning of the session but has yet to weigh in on the legislation they will send back to the house – a sign of the real negotiations over what ethics reform will look like as law.
Saturday’s county Republican Party conventions sent a few tea leaves that remind us that the debate is not over, but that the problem remains very real. The Columbus/Muscogee County GOP passed a resolution urging rejection of the House ethics reform package and suggesting it be replaced by “real” ethics reform. This news was tweeted from the convention by none other than Senator Josh McKoon who began the battle cry from the Senate over the issue last year.
McKoon’s fortunes on the ethics front have come full circle, when his outspoken criticism of ethics issues earned him the cold shoulder from many of his colleagues including Senate leadership. Following the results of last summer’s public ballot questions on the issue and the election of new Senate leaders, McKoon has seen his standing change and now appears to have the backing to advance the issue from the Senate side. As such, his tweet could be seen as a sign that the Senate’s ethics reform plan will be significantly different than that passed by the House.
An admonition on the subject came from none other than outgoing State GOP Chair Sue Everhart as she delivered the keynote to Cobb County’s gathering Saturday. She stated emphatically that for the Republican majority “oversight and ethics” must be the most important issues they address, because “that is how you protect your brand.” Moments later, she called out those that compose that majority by noting that as soon as she agreed to put the ethics question on July’s primary ballot the fundraising assistance she had traditionally received dried up.
“The elected officials won’t help me financially because of the ethics stuff” she said bluntly. And with that, the stakes were changed on the debate that will occur between the chambers over the next three weeks.
While all sides are publicly talking about the need for reform, an active program of punishment against the party structure for codifying the need with the public indicates that those who will be voting on reforms are not going along willingly. It also signals the need to carefully scrutinize any “solution” that is passed for its practical effectiveness.
While the House makes significant steps forward by limiting the amount and types of gifts that officials can receive, it continues to be inadequate with regard to the accountability of elected officials when laws are breached. The strategy seems to be equivalent to the war on drugs, which seems to focus exclusively on the supply side. Lobbyists would not have a market to supply if there was not a demand for their gifts. When lobbyists continue to discuss instances of legislators beginning dinner conversations with “you aren’t going to report this are you?”, then making sure more lobbyists are registered seems to be less important than making sure those officials who want to receive gifts but don’t want them reported face equal punishment if these transactions go unreported. Those who remain concerned that additional caps push this activity “underground” usually omit that the official has no fear to be complicit in the underground nature of said abuse.
There are three weeks for Georgia’s legislature to get this right. The remarks from the GOP Chairman this Saturday indicate that the battle is still an uphill one.