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Our Views: Another chance to halt the gravy train

Ballot question on imposing gift limits could send a vital message to lawmakers

POSTED: June 3, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Amid candidates for Congress, state and local office and a controversial transportation sales tax, you’ll find a late addition to the July 31 Republican primary ballot.

A nonbinding advisory question will ask Georgia voters if a cap amount should be set on how much in meals and perks state lawmakers can accept from lobbyists. It will propose a limit of $100 in gifts and $750 for travel, meals and accommodations to conferences and speaking events.

The idea was proposed as legislation during this year’s General Assembly session, but was shot down by Republican leaders. State Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus offered the bill, and now the ballot question, to gauge where Georgia voters stand. A “yes” vote would create a stronger push for such legislation next year.

It’s not going out on a limb to predict what voters may choose. Despite what one state leader thinks, ethical boundaries are not a partisan issue, not the work of agenda-driven foes of good government and not a trifling matter. For years, legislators have skirted the issue of accepting gifts, saying the practice doesn’t affect their votes and that most folks don’t much care about it. Now we’ll see if they are right.

A check of lobbying reports shows that local legislators were wined and dined often during the General Assembly session, with most the reported expenses meals that cost less than $100. But it adds up, along with the tickets to sporting events and other “swag,” all provided by special-interest organizations able to buy more access to lawmakers than residents in their districts can afford.

But is this bounty a way to influence votes or just the cost of doing business? One who seems to believe it’s the latter is House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. After scuttling the legislation to set up such a ceiling, he has resisted calls to stop the flow of lobbyist largesse.

At last month’s Republican state convention, Ralston even painted it as a partisan issue, saying that “liberal groups” trying to thwart the state’s GOP majority were behind the lobbying law push. He insists lawmakers are good people doing a hard job, and that such hard-edge limits assume otherwise.

Where to begin? We’ll start with the charge that this is a partisan ideological issue, which is both absurd and insulting to his own party. Assuming only “liberals” care about ethical matters is to paint all Republicans as gift-greedy and unwilling to run a clean Capitol.

Naturally, many of his party colleagues were quick to repudiate his remarks, including many tea party followers. Remember them, Mr. Speaker? These are the folks who created a political movement driven by ideology, yes, but also by what they perceive as a “good ol’ boys” club of government back-scratchers who are as hungry to line their own pockets as they are as careless with the public’s money. They do not take kindly to being called “liberal” for caring about this issue. And they are not a group of voters you want to thumb your nose at.

How do Ralston and those who agree with him fail to see how this looks? The speaker himself was found to have accepted lavish travel benefits in years past. This year’s lobbying gift report shows him accepting thousands of dollars worth of meals and other gifts during the last legislative session. And he wasn’t alone.

Ralston needs to remember why he has the speaker’s gavel — because his predecessor, Glenn Richardson, stepped into his own ethical quicksand and was forced to leave office. If the speaker continues to ignore pleas to tighten the rules, he may eventually face a challenge within his own party from a tea party-backed Republican vowing to run a cleaner house.

Ralston’s right when he says most lawmakers are decent people trying to do honest work. That’s why they don’t need to be painted with the perception of being bought and sold. The best way to head that off is a set of tight rules and limits, strong independent enforcement and painful penalties when the rules are broken.

Few people go into public life with corrupt intentions, but the power and money attached to elected office can eat away at their ethical moorings. By keeping strong rules and limits in place, that temptation can be kept at arm’s length.

What remains baffling is why so many lawmakers, many of whom have proven themselves to be men and women of integrity, are so opposed to changing the status quo. You would think they would favor stricter policies as a means of making positive changes in public perception, if nothing else.

Limiting lobbyist gifts is not a partisan issue, nor is it a piddling concern. When voters see the favors piled upon their hired government officials, they get mad. Times are tough; many Georgians are still looking for work, and many who have jobs haven’t received raises in many years. No one is sticking Falcons tickets in their back pocket or buying them steak dinners.

It’s past time to clamp down on the flow of goodies. Take a moment to vote on the ballot question when you go to the polls and let your elected officials know it’s time for them to put reasonable guidelines in place to end this nonsense.


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