The reason should be obvious — money equals access equals influence.
And it’s a lead-pipe cinch that average citizens — particularly now, as they struggle in a floundering economy with mortgage payments, car payments, grocery bills, etc. — can’t assemble the kind of money needed, sadly enough, to attract the attention of their legislators if they’re forced to compete with the unfettered ability of various corporate and other interests to wine and dine lawmakers.
It’s a situation made doubly scandalous by the fact that it makes it too easy for lawmakers, who are supposed to be watching out for the needs of the people who elected them, to instead watch out for the needs of the special interests who court them — needs that might run directly counter to the interests of the people.
All of that, though, is a lesson lost on Georgia’s lawmakers. Georgia is one of the three states that don’t impose limits on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. And judging from the Republican-dominated legislature’s response to House Bill 798, which would limit gifts to $100, and limit expenditures on lawmakers for conferences and other events to $500, that’s not likely to change.
The bill, sponsored by Tommy Smith (R-Nicholls) — who has exhibited some courage in bucking his party’s evident position — attracted just one other Republican sponsor, Rep. Ellis Black of Valdosta, along with a number of Democratic sponsors, and has been languishing in a House committee for more than two weeks.
There’s no reason to believe the bill will get any further, and the same fate appears likely for Senate Bill 391 — sponsored by a number of Republicans in that chamber, primarily Josh McKoon of Columbus, with a $100 limit on gifts and a $750 limit on conference-related expenses — at least once it gets to the House chamber.
The reason that ethics legislation isn’t likely to get much of a hearing can be laid squarely at the feet of House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), who believes the fact that lobbyists are required to disclose expenditures is enough control over that spending.
“Let the people be the judge about what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” Ralston is quoted as saying in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. “I trust their judgment.”
It would be hard to find a more disingenuous statement on the ethical standards which ought to apply to lawmakers.
What Ralston is saying is that average citizens should be expected to spend their time culling through reports, or seeking out media stories on those reports, to determine whether their lawmaker is more interested in them or the industry lobbyist who took him or her to a concert or sporting event.
Begging your pardon, Mr. Speaker, but if you’re truly willing to trust the public’s judgment, why not give them the chance to judge whether they’d rather subject you and your legislative colleagues to lobbyist spending limits?
Surely if you believe the general public has the time and energy to cull through lobbyists’ expenditure reports, you also believe they have the time and energy to contact you and your colleagues to let you know they’re OK with the current system.
The truth here, Mr. Speaker, is that on this issue, the general public would almost certainly side with McKoon, who asked in a recent report on an Atlanta TV station, “I mean, can’t we agree that there is a certain point where we have to say no more?”
Mr. Speaker, to the extent you and your colleagues don’t recognize that there is a limit to what lobbyists should spend on you, and to the extent you aren’t willing to impose that limit, you’ve plainly lost sight of who you’re supposed to be serving when you convene under the Capitol’s gold dome.