The following is a guest post from Senator Josh McKoon, last year’s seemingly lone voice on ethics reform. He now has others joining him – somewhat – and there are ongoing negotiations between the House and the Senate. Below are his thoughts, and I’ll be back with more of my own later this afternoon. – CBH
Let me begin by saying that passage of the Senate substitute to HB 142 will not solve all of the problems with existing Georgia ethics law but it is a strong first step in restoring faith in government. Charlie’s comment on Buzz’s post is on the money. We must have a Commission with adequate resources to achieve its mission. Even more importantly, we must have an independent enforcement mechanism to pursue allegations of corruption and see that they are properly disposed of by state government. That is why I offered SR 6 and SR 7 to address those components of ethics reform. While it is clear they are not going to move this year, I hope that we can get action on those items in 2014.
We do however have a chance to take a real step forward in reducing the corrosive impact of unlimited gifts of unlimited value. The original HB 142 continued to allow, under 9 separate exceptions, unlimited gifts of unlimited value. The Senate substitute imposes a $100 cap on all gifts except events to which the entire General Assembly is invited and domestic travel. But travel for staff and family has been prohibited. This measure, along with the rule making authority being restored to the Commission is a big step in the right direction.
Gift cap language is not new. Governor Perdue offered it in his first term. Many states have adopted gift caps (most recently Louisiana) and they are working in limiting the amount of money spent on legislators. We have seen an impact this session in the Senate Rule that was adopted on Day 1 of the session regulating gifts to State Senators. It has been said that the overwhelming result in the July primary election on question two can be discounted because it was not multiple choice. For those of us who participated in the floor debate at the May 2012 Republican convention in Columbus we remember that an amendment was offered to the resolution calling for a $100 gift cap to reduce it to a total ban. That amendment was defeated by a vote of the 2,000 or so Republican delegates at the convention. Repeatedly the people of this state and organizations concerned with ethics in government have endorsed a $100 gift cap.
The Senate substitute also does away with the expanded registration requirement for uncompensated persons who come to advocate in what they believe to be the public interest. The need for this provision of HB 142 was never brought up in the over 30 town hall meetings I held on this issue around the state. It seems to be a thinly veiled jab at the precious few citizens who spend their own hard earned money to ask for a little time to advocate for the public interest. There are those that believe these folks should only be heard from when volunteers are needed for campaigns. Fortunately the Constitution makes it clear they enjoy the right to advocate at all times and in all places. So eliminating this obstacle to public input is the right policy and also is in line with the constitutional protection of that activity.
The House has an opportunity to agree to the Senate substitute and keep faith with over 800,000 Georgians who asked for a $100 limit. Lets hope they do that. For if we get a watered down conference committee report or one that attempts to illegally restrain the first amendment right to petition the government, we will be better off voting that down than declaring victory on this issue in yet another act of duplicity with the voting public. Agreeing to the substitute on the other hand would show that the legislature is actually listening to the people on this issue.