Today’s Courier Herald Column:
In politics, too many are judged on what they say. Too often, there is quite a distance between what politicians tell us they will do, and what is actually done. Sometimes that distance can be measured in days – quite literally. Forty days, to be exact.
At the beginning of the session of the General Assembly there are often lofty promises of how our legislators will work for the people. Of how the government of the people will be made more open and transparent by their actions. Of how our elected officials will be more open and accountable to those they serve.
Last year, at the beginning and throughout the session, leadership from both the House and Senate insisted Georgia’s ethics laws were just fine, thank you. Any and all attempts to reform the laws were rebuffed. And then, day 40 happened. That was then a conference committee on a bill to make technical changes to how fishing licenses would be issued decided that they would change Georgia’s ethics laws to allow some violations to be shielded from the public forever.
This late insertion was not announced to the Senate nor House by the conferees who inserted the stealth change. The Senate passed the conference report, but the House was alerted to the change just after voting began. The bill failed in the House and did not become law. But the action of day 40 was clear that some wanted even weaker laws than the virtually unenforceable laws Georgia currently has.
One election cycle later, Georgia voters have spoken loudly over the need for ethics reform. T-SPLOST was also a wakeup call that there needs to be trust restored in government. The people are growing antsy of a ruling class that seems to enjoy the perks of power and is growing distant from the governed.
The response, after initial protests, was a change of heart. The session opened by House Speaker Ralston who once called ethics reform the domain of liberals and elite media, was promising a full gift cap from lobbyists. The Senate who last year pretended they couldn’t find their own Rules Chairman to ask him about questionable expense reimbursements adopted rules limiting gifts pending legislation to be passed during the session.
There was a lot of talk about the need. Talk about making the legislature more accountable to the people. Of not continuing the image that legislators who are paid a daily per diem are still on a quest to see how much they could get others to spend on them for meals, tickets, and trips. Essentially, there was a concerted effort to make the legislature closer to the level of those they govern.
And now we have come to day 40, and in the interest of “fairness”, the version of the ethics bill passed by the Senate and in front of the House for consideration places a freeze on campaign contributions for challengers to incumbent legislators when the legislature is in session.
State elected officials are not allowed to receive campaign contributions when the legislature is in session to avoid the appearance that legislation is being bought. Legislators, who have turned the Gold Dome into a southern version of the K-Street project and are re-elected at an annual rate of over 90%, have turned the ethics bill which was already too narrow in scope into an incumbent protection program. Those that face incredible odds of overcoming the institutional advantage of incumbency are now told that they can’t raise money – even though they have no vote or influence to sell – because it would be “unfair” to those who raise money up until the last minute the legislature gavels into session with bills needing consideration already filed.
This measure is added from the same Senate that just last summer illegally diverted money from its own trust into an “independent” expenditure group that was given specific direction of who to help from those same incumbents who were to be protected.
Day one began with hope that this year, finally, there would be substantial movement on ethics reform. Day 40 offers a cynical ploy to use this vehicle to make it even harder to beat an incumbent. And with the added degree of difficulty to lose, the arrogance of an entrenched establishment will grow stronger.
The distance between what our legislature has said they will do on ethics reform and what they are poised to do is the same distance Charlie Brown needs to kick a field goal. And once again, Lucy is poised again to take that snap.