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.