I’m sorry to say that my home state of Georgia ranks near the bottom of the country when it comes to ethics laws. But it ranks near the top in lobbyist influence.
A report by the Center for Public Integrity ranked Georgia dead last in the country on a set of 330 “corruption risk indicators” including open records law, campaign finance rules, and auditing and budgeting procedures. Georgia received an overall grade of 49 out of 100, an F, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
So, as one can imagine, most Georgians find it pretty galling that the state legislature not only refuses to pass a simple limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators of $100, but many of them, including its officers, openly mock it and call it some kind of “liberal” plot. They take this position in spite of the fact that virtually every state in the country, including Georgia’s southern neighbors – all of them governed by Republicans – has similar or even more stringent limits on lobbyist spending.
The ringleader in this crass act of civic malfeasance is the speaker of the Georgia House, David Ralston. He has made it clear to every member of the Republican leadership in the House that they are not to go near this proposal.
There are two salient facts here:
One is that Mr. Ralston’s predecessor was ruined and run out of town due to an affair with a lobbyist that led to a crisis of confidence in the legislature itself and in its leadership. There were promises of greater openness and better codes of ethics. The day Mr. Ralston took the oath as House Speaker in January 2010 he swore to “restore Georgians’ confidence in their elected officials” and said “renewal is born from adversity.” Okay.
Second, less than a year later Mr. Ralston accepted a $17,000 lobbyist-funded trip to Germany for him, his family, and his staff to study high-speed rail. It represented the largest single expenditure by a lobbyist on a legislator in six years. The lobbyist was not from Georgia and was not a registered lobbyist in Georgia. Ouch.
And since then he and his fellow House leaders have laughably argued that Georgia has some of the toughest ethics laws in the country, and that passing a limit on lobbyist gifts would actually make Georgia less ethical.
But Georgians are in no laughing mood. In the upcoming statewide primary, both the Republicans and the Democrats will feature a ballot item asking voters if they favor such a limit on lobbyist spending. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say voters will favor it. Polls show Georgians, by a convincing majority, want and expect such reasonable limits for their public servants.
Maybe it is arrogance that leads politicians to so openly defy the public will. Maybe it is a misreading of public interest and public sentiment. Or it could be a belief, however misguided, that legislators really do deserve special treatment. More than one legislator has said something to the effect of “well the voters keep reelecting me, so it must not be that big a deal.” Sigh.
I challenge any Georgia legislator, in any part of the state, to make that their official slogan during their reelection campaign.
But members of the Georgia state senate are starting to come around. A number of key senators have signed a pledge to support the bill to cap lobbyist gifts. This may be due, at least in part, to an ethics investigation into the senate’s third highest-ranking member and chair of the powerful Rules Committee.
So there’s hope. After all, every Georgian’s real fear should be that the state of Alabama has stronger ethics laws than the Peach State.