Like most other state legislatures, our General Assembly believes we should never use three words when we can use seven. That may be the reason that in 2009 the General Assembly changed the name, Georgia Ethics Commission, to Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Then and now this commission’s jurisdiction has been ethical issues involving Georgia public officials and lobbyists. It was while serving as a state representative that I learned a great deal about how the lobbying system works.
Between the time I was elected in November and then seated in the House of Representatives in January 2001, I made a conscious self-commitment that I would always put my constituents before lobbyists in regard to returning calls, making appointments and attending social functions. Even with this personal commitment in tow, I was not prepared for the barrage of calls and requests for appointments that came from lobbyists. In fairness to lobbyists, I soon came to believe that they were getting a bum rap from the public generally and from the press specifically. To a large degree I still believe this.
Those lobbyists with whom I talked simply explained why they favored or opposed a particular bill. They provided detailed information on the bill’s topic, made a case for their favoring or opposing it, and urged me to vote a certain way. I saw nothing wrong with this; indeed, it was useful since lawmakers must read and get familiar with hundreds of bills each session.
By mid-session of my first year, however, I began to learn about another aspect of political lobbying, one that not all lobbyists engage in. Sitting with a lobbyist to discuss legislation is one thing, but being plied with gifts (showered is the more precise word) is quite another. Oh, the unsolicited gifts and gift offers: tickets, meals, trinkets, more tickets, small rugs, blueberry bushes, key rings, expensive-looking paper weights, seminars with free meals, and more tickets.
I never thought too much about this system until two things happened. The first was that my legislative office began to fill up with gifts. The second was an epiphany that occurred while watching a UGA football game in Athens with my wife, thanks to two free tickets. (Yes, tax-supported institutions do use tax money to lobby legislators.)
No offense to the Bulldog Nation, but at that free ticket ballgame my mind was on two other things: one was the simultaneous game at my alma mater, Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, and the other was my uncomfortable feeling about accepting the tickets. There I was, a 57-year-old man, hearing the simple words of my simple parents ringing in my ears: “It just doesn’t look good” and “I just don’t know about this.”
Good, honest people can view a matter differently, but I didn’t like the feeling I had after accepting the tickets. Not everything that’s legal is right or wise to do. Every citizen in Georgia has the right to go to the Capitol and influence legislation, but most don’t have the time or money to do so. Joe Voter certainly doesn’t have the wherewithal to wine and dine his state representative or senator.
Common Cause and the Tea Party are right. The gift-giving is corrupting, and the writer of this sentence, and every reader of it, is corruptible. Gifts are absolutely all about access. Access to those who make the laws we must live under should be based on two things: our conviction about the potential law, and our willingness to express our conviction.
But why limit gifts to $100? Why allow a penny? The best route is a complete ban on lobbyist gifts. That way, a well-paid lobbyist and Joe Voter would be on equal footing. Both would be allowed to use their minds, their gift of language, their willingness to study and research an issue, and their powers of persuasion. Neither would be allowed to use their checkbooks, pricey meals, or an incessant flow of goodies to legislative offices.
Gift-giving — or legal gift-giving — could actually be remedied in one fell swoop. Pass a law that forbids it. The $100 gift cap would hardly touch the present system. It even sounds silly. The question is: what does corruptibility have to do with a dollar figure?
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.