You would be wrong when it comes to ethics reform. All the above groups — joining together as the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform — have not cracked the anti-reform armor of the Republicans in control of the General Assembly. Two bills introduced this session are languishing in committees controlled by the Republicans. Senate Bill 391 by Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus) was sent to the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 7. House Bill 1105 by Rep. Tommy Smith (R-Nichols) has been reclining in the House Rules Committee since Feb. 23.
The bills are similar, ending the unlimited spending by lobbyists on our legislators. HB 1105, the stronger measure, would set a $100 limit on such spending and would include family and staff members of public officials. This bill also would require members of state boards, commissions or authorities and the heads of state agencies to file annual financial disclosure statements.
Georgia holds an embarrassing distinction as the only state in the Southeast without a limit on lobbyist spending on legislators. Moreover, Georgia is one of only three states without such limits. And this flies in the face not only of reform efforts by the Georgia Alliance for Reform but the wishes of the people of this state. Georgia Watch cites a Mason Dixon poll that showed that 72 percent of registered Georgia voters favor a limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators.
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who promised ethics reform when he won the speakership, has blocked any meaningful reform. Instead, he made headlines by accepting a seven-day, lobbyist-paid $17,000 trip to Europe with his family in November 2010. He defended the trip as “an opportunity to look at high speed rail and how it related to economic development.”
Ralston’s idea of ethics law is to require lobbyists to report what they spend on legislators. His approach, as he told this columnist more than a year ago, is this: “We’ve got ethics laws in place in Georgia that give openness and transparency to people so they can look and see who’s spending money on us and how much, and then make a determination when appropriate if it causes us to be influenced by those expenditures.”
So it’s up to the citizens to dig through lobbyist reports to find out who spent how much on legislators — and then decide if they’ve been influenced. Meanwhile, Ralston and his fellow legislators go merrily on their way accepting meals, trips, tickets to sports events, and whatever else they choose to accept from lobbyists, never mind what the people want.
Executive director Angela Speir Phelps of Georgia Watch got it right when she said, “If our lawmakers choose to not place a cap on gifts, it will be clear that their sense of entitlement far outweighs their sense of duty to the people they serve.”
And so it does.