Ethics Reform Transparently Lacks Will

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Most items of consequence within the Georgia General Assembly happen during the final few days.  This is sometimes because lengthy negotiations require the full allotment of time to come to a consensus of the interested parties in each chamber.  Sometimes it is because positions require feedback that is part of an iterative process involving legislators and the public.  And sometimes it is because a lot can be obfuscated if enough time and press is given to coordinated misdirection.

There are three days left in this session of the Georgia General Assembly that will end on this week.  Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday will mark days 38,39, and 40.  Many items that were considered dead will make “surprise” appearances via amendments to other bills.  Some items will be brand new via that same process.  And some items will be compromises heralded as solutions that do not match the problems they are said to fix.

Ethics reform is beginning to look like it will fall into that final category.  The compromise between the House and Senate – if there is to be one – centers on if there is a dollar threshold on gifts that can be bestowed on legislators by lobbyists or if they will be eliminated; what loopholes will allow those gifts to continue flowing under certain conditions; and who will have to register as a lobbyist to report such gifts.

Ethics reform advocates are partly responsible for at least the first two items of debate. The Georgia Ethics Alliance – composed of groups such as Common Cause Georgia and the Tea Party Patriots – pushed for a gift cap of $100 during last session by featuring a pledge.  They deemed it progress when many of those who spent the entire last session blocking reforms signed on, rather than viewing it as the beginning of co-opting the headline while resisting actual change.

The result was the House passing a measure which changed the definition of who must register as a lobbyist and a total gift cap – except for all the exclusions of those gifts that aren’t capped.  The Senate wants to allow gifts of up to $100 – which can be delivered multiple times by the same lobbyist to the same legislator each day.

The Tea Party Patriots spent most of the early part of the debate battling back against requirements they register rather than to focus on adding what these bills lack – independent oversight of the process and individual accountability for legislators who violate gift restrictions or accept undisclosed gifts.  This public spat – viewed by many in the group as retribution for their pushing this issue – gave a lot of headlines to the battle over registration and may well have lost the war for this session on meaningful reform.

Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus– the legislature’s lone voice on the issue of reform during the 2012 session – soldiers on supporting the Senate’s version of the bill, but also notes his SR 6 and SR 7 – proposals which would add independent oversight to pursue corruption – are “not going to move this year”.   Instead, we will likely hear leaders of both chambers champion a win for “transparency” as their chief weapon for ethics.

We will hear the touts of increased transparency despite a bill that appeared in this 11th hour to limit the information available on how we comply with Georgia’s execution laws (or if we don’t).  We will watch as “reports of disturbances, or allegation of threats, abuse or wrongdoing” in Georgia’s juvenile justice system are legally hidden from public view in another late legislative sleight of hand.

And those who tell us transparency ensures ethical accountability will not want you to ask why their own body remains exempt from Georgia’s open records laws.

Transparency will likely again make great headlines to triumph new ethics laws that refuse to address real and documented ethical problems in our state government.  It’s sad that the lack of real commitment to change is the thing that remains most transparent in this process.

11 comments

  1. While the cast of characters has changed somewhat (though not as much as you might have expected) you essentially have the same type of person running the legislature now as a Republican as you had with the Democrats when they were in charge.

    We were great at driving by looking in the rear view mirror, patting ourselves on the back about our future actions with the knowledge that we had won prior elections – many rigged by our own redistricting. Republicans seem to be doing the same thing. Ultimately can you blame them – the voters returned them to power in almost identical amounts in 2012 as they had been voted for in 2010, their attitude is going to be why should we change?

  2. Three Jack says:

    Ethics reform for Dummies:

    1. No limits on PAC/lobby spending
    2. Legislators required to post their schedule daily including all lobbyists paid for activities
    3. When running for re-election, top 3 gift providers listed under incumbent name on the ballot with amount ‘publicly’ reported displayed next to the giver

    Ultimately it is up to us voters to pressure our representatives one way or another. Let em take all the gifts/money/trips/tickets they want, but it must be reported daily and on the next ballot. If voters choose to ignore a Don Balfour or David Ralston type situation, then we get what we deserve. Placing arbitrary limits/restrictions on this practice will only serve to move more of it underground.

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      Oooh. I really like number 3.

      And you’re right. I wonder how many elections have come and gone since we started this talk of ethic reform, and it comes down to the fact that if voters were informed enough, or actually even wanted to handle this issue, it would have been handled.

      I’m really puzzled as to why anyone thinks legislators are going to legislate themselves to be honest is a workable idea anyway.

    • debbie0040 says:

      Why not have the legislator be required to post on a web site weekly, every gift he took from a lobbyist, the lobbyist name and the issue/legislation that was discussed and the dollar amount of the gift. Same goes for their staff members as well. The legislator has to include gifts his staff received as well. The web site includes the names of all legislators with a link to their page that lists gifts,etc. Something easy for the public..

      • Three Jack says:

        Debbie,

        They should do it daily. If Michael Caldwell can post his every vote including an explanation on a daily basis, then the ‘takers’ can surely find a few moments between votes and accepting gifts to list what they got daily.

        PP posters have spent more time discussing this issue than those that represent us. In fact, there are far better ideas being debated here than by the prostitutes attempting to reduce their street price en masse under the gold dome. Here is more proof that they really don’t give a ratsa$$ about those not in their old fart club, aka Georgia Senate — http://www.ajc.com/weblogs/political-insider/2013/mar/26/ethics-reform-now-includes-incumbent-protection-pr/

        45-2, unbelievable.

  3. debbie0040 says:

    I am totally supportive of Josh’s bills SB 6 and SB 7 and if we thought they had a chance at passing we would be advocating full throttle. The coaltion had a big discussion on them and we realized that they did not have much hope at passage even though they are needed. You have to pick your battles and we felt we had a greater chance of getting something with caps passed, because that is what the people voted on. There was an amendment changing the 100 cap to 0 offered during the GOP Convention that voted on the ballot question and it was voted down by about 90%.

    We reached this place only because we took our message to the people over the objections of legislative leadership. We knew to ask for more would lessen the likelihood of caps passing.

    As for the lobbyist definition, that is an issue that the overwhelming majority of activists wanted us to fight and fight hard because they considered an attack on the grassroots. The same grassroots that had volunteered time to help many legislators get elected and had allowed legislators to speak at their tea party events. They were incensed that it was even introduced, especially with the first version. I know House leadership said they did not mean to stop grassroots activists from coming to the Capitol, but no one believes that. The legislators that signed on to and wrote the bill were experienced and had written many other pieces of legislation. It comes down to possible scenerios: 1. The legislators that wrote the bill were too incompetent to know what the language would mean. 2. It was intentional

    The definition matters to activists because we are not paid or compensated in any way for our time at the Capitol. We have no financial interest whatsoever other than good government and we feel like we are doing a service for the tax-payer and looking out for our tax dollars. Yes, Atlanta Tea Party has a donate button when we send out emails about legislation, but we are lucky if we get enough donations to pay for the email service or text messaging system. Julianne and I pay for parking and other things out of our pockets. The bottom line is we realize that once we are forced to register, we would be subject to having someone file unfounded ethics complaints against us to shut us up and keep us from coming to the Capitol. That happened recently with a tea party activist in Cherokee County and it cost him several thousand to defend himself even though he was to have done nothing wrong. We also checked surrounding states to see what their laws were in regard to volunteers and they do not require volunteers to register.

    • Bob Loblaw says:

      This is good stuff. First sentence: you’d of been “advocating full throttle”. That’s lobbying. Lobbying is an act. You’re actions trump your words.

      Hilarious comment prior to that, wanting legislators to write down who they talk or whatever. You want everyone to disclose everything but you.

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone gripe as much about parking and gas money since high school when folks hitched rides. Lobbying has nothing to do with being paid. If it does, then what does the lobbyist do that gets paid for some clients and not anything for others? Should they take their badge off when they’re lobbying for one thing and put it back on for the other?

      • UpHere says:

        So true.

        You had Kay Godwin “lobbying” members over a Senate bill today. On the ropes. Just like all the others with badges. You SHOULD have to register if you lobby which it what Debbie does and Julianne does and what Kay does. I don’t care if you get paid or not. YOU ARE LOBBYING.

        What is the issue now that the fees have been dropped? This is not silencing activists as poor little Debbie was crying about to WSB today. They all preach transparency until it affects them directly. Then, it is David Ralston trying to screw grassroots.

  4. polpol says:

    I have followed this debate and many others on the Lobbyist/Ethics front for many years. I have been a lobbyist at the Capitol since 1979 (except for 4 years off for good behavior), and cannot understand the aversion to registering, particularly if there is no cost involved, which was the case until just recently. I fail to comprehend why an activist would not want to be in a database where other volunteers could readily identify who represents what, paid or not. Perhaps if the individual referenced from Cherokee County was registered, their problems might not have happened. While I understand the First Amendment argument which was used years ago to repeal the first registration fee, I just don’t buy into the argument that having to register under certain conditions abridges my freedom of speech…….no more than having to pass a background check abridges my right to bear arms……cause in many ways, the freedom of speech is the most effective method of defending our rights…….if you beliefs in your causes are strong enough for you to endure the rigors of multiple visits to the Gold Dome, then the registration and the resultant name tag are actually a badge of honor……

  5. Dave Bearse says:

    One of the reasons that I changed from supporting gift limits to a gift ban is the lack of legislator’s personal accountibility in any ethics legislation now and in the preceeding transparency legislation.

    The solution to there being no legislator’s personal accountibility for gifts is to simply prohibit the gifts they refuse to be accountable for, and press to close up ridiculous loopholes like exempting caucuses/subcommittees of one.

    I will hold the Senate primarily responsible for inferior ethics legislation. Their guy, Dandy Don, was the impetus for ethics legislation well over a year ago, yet the Senate waited until three days before this year’s Sine Die to pass legislation substantially different than the House legislation passed months ago.

    BTW, has the now three year old March 2010 complaint against Ralston before the Transparency Commission ever been brought to conclusion? Not that there’s anything to the complaint, but it certainly exemplifies a virtually non-existent investigative and adjudication process.

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