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Our Views: Legislators, give up the goodies

Bill to limit gifts from lobbyists would help restore trust in state government

POSTED: February 26, 2012 1:00 a.m.

If ever there were a piece of legislation you'd think should be a no-brainer, it is the idea to cap how much lobbyists can spend to woo state lawmakers, a practice that totals some $1.6 million annually

Senate Bill 391 would limit gifts to legislators to $100 and cap travel and accommodation expenses at $750. Both figures still seem high, but a good start, at least.

Georgia is one of only three states that do not limit how much lobbyists can spend courting legislators. A similar attempt failed last year, and it's a long shot to pass this year. The Senate bill remains in committee, as does a House bill addressing ethics reform, HB 798.

That is largely because House Speaker David Ralston believes such limits are not needed as long as Georgians can check the bounty their lawmakers receive. That was the centerpiece of reform passed in 2010, Ralston's first year with the gavel, and he seems to feel it is adequate.

In theory, maybe. But loopholes in how lobbyists report expenditures remain, and they don't always get reported. Such was the case this year when $16,000 spent on the Wild Hog Supper showed up only as $7,677 because a nonprofit agricultural group paid most of it.

This shows why mere transparency is not enough, and why the best way to restore trust in government is to clamp down on such expenses at the source.

Yet Ralston believes it an insult to the good people of the legislature to assume they can be influenced by the meals, golf outings, sports tickets and other lavish items stuffed in their pockets by those who seek to guide legislation.

Fine. Then get rid of highway speed limits and assume the "good people" of Georgia will drive at a safe speed. Take the locks off all government buildings, knowing "good people" would not break in. If he feels legislators can be kept the honor system, that same code should suffice for the rest of us. But if we acknowledge that human beings can be tempted, it's best to remove such temptation.

Ralston and those who share his views fail to see the public's perception on this issue. No one is calling them all dishonest, but the public's opinion of politicians is not very high right now. With 236 people serving in the legislature, it only takes a few wayward souls abusing their privilege to taint the whole assembly. He should know that and bow to the will of the majority; more than 80 percent of Georgians in a recent poll support limits on gifts.

If lawmakers are not swayed by such gifts, then why accept them? If they want to attend a car race or football game, they should stand in line or buy tickets online like everyone else. The idea that they can live high on the hog and enjoy special favors while someone else picks up the check merely increases the chasm between them and the people they were hired to represent.

Lobbyists serve a useful purpose, offering views and information on key issues that help lawmakers set policy. But that helpful persuasion could be conducted just as ably without the incessant wining and dining. Picking up the tab for a sandwich or a steak dinner is one thing; expensive gifts, trips and plane rides go beyond the pale, and need to be controlled, or better still, eliminated.

This is a topic, by the way, that is fully bipartisan. Groups and individuals separated by political ideology are on the same page here; they agree elected officials should conduct themselves ethically before we can begin to address issues that divide us. Distrust of government helped spawn the tea party movement, and its members are wielding considerable clout in the Republican party that holds power in the legislature. It would do well for Ralston and other leaders to heed their concerns.

"It's clear that Georgians are out of line with the rest of the country," said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, one of the bill's principal sponsors (which include Gainesville's Butch Miller and Dahlonega's Steve Gooch). "We are having a crisis of confidence in our state. We have a cloud over everything we are doing."

The move toward more ethical government should start with full funding for an independent ethics commission to serve as an effective watchdog. When violations are uncovered, penalties should be enforced and fines paid.

The next step is to whittle down the pile of goodies offered by lobbyists. Such moves would show a serious intent to make government more responsible to the people they serve.

Call, write or email your representatives, along with Ralston (contact information is on page 3D), and let them know they must continue to earn our trust by giving ethical reform more than lip service. It's time for them to put down the forks, the wine glasses and the golf clubs and prove they are above reproach.



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