When House Speaker David Ralston drafted a bill last session to revise the state's ethics laws, he refused to include what many reformers thought was the most important provision: a limit on the amount of money lobbyists could spend on legislators.
Ralston said that requiring public disclosure of what lobbyists spent, no matter how much the amount, was sufficient.
"I trust the people of this state to make those judgments (on whether it's appropriate for a legislator to accept gifts)," he said at the time. "I'm comfortable with letting the people make the determination. They know what to do."
Legislators agreed with Ralston and passed his version of the bill without the limit on gifts.
A disclosure report filed last week with the State Campaign Finance Commission (formerly known as the Ethics Commission) provides a hint as to why Ralston did not want to put those limits on lobbyists.
A lobbyist for Virginia-based Commonwealth Research Associates disclosed that he spent $17,682 on an expenses-paid trip to Europe for Ralston, his family, his chief aide and his aide's wife during Thanksgiving week.
Commonwealth is a consulting firm with an interest in seeing a high-speed rail line built between Atlanta and Chattanooga, a project that has been discussed for years but still lacks funding from the state.
Ironically, reports of Ralston's junket hit the media just two days after a coalition of watchdog groups, the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, called for the passage of legislation to make additional revisions to the state's ethics laws, including a gift ban.
Bob Irvin, the former head of Common Cause Georgia, said that mere disclosure of lobbyist spending, as Ralston insisted upon, was not enough to curb a culture of corruption at the capitol.
"We don't say, ‘it's OK to murder someone as long as you disclose it,'" Irvin said. "Gifts from lobbyists should be limited to $100." He noted that Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order that places a limit of $25 on gifts that can be given to his staffers.
Common Cause, Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Georgia Watch and others make a convincing argument that the state's ethics laws just aren't strong enough.
The problem isn't that Ralston is an unethical person. I have generally found him to be straightforward and honest in his public dealings, and he has worked hard to clean up the image of the Georgia House after the excesses of the former speaker.
The same goes for Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, and Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton, who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee. I consider them to be decent, honorable legislators who want to do the right thing when it comes to enforcing ethics requirements.
Even so, when a lobbyist spends $17,000 to wine and dine a public official, it is always going to raise troubling questions about that official's ability to act in the best interests of the people he represents. Would a legislator be more willing to vote for a bill favored by that lobbyist even if it might cause a financial hardship for his constituents?
There is a similar issue here that involves conflicts of interest.
The Senate leadership recently appointed Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, to chair the Health and Human Services Committee. Unterman is an executive with Amerigroup, which contracts with Georgia to administer health care services for Medicaid recipients. In the last fiscal year, the state paid Amerigroup nearly $600 million for its services.
Suppose that a bill was introduced to change the way the Medicaid system is administered - a bill that would save money for taxpayers but also cut back on the money paid to Amerigroup. Would Unterman, in her role as committee chairman, be under some pressure to kill that bill because it would directly affect the fortunes of her employer?
Legislators are human beings with the same weaknesses as all of us. If we could revamp our ethics laws to put some limits on lobbyist gifts and minimize conflicts of interest, we might remove some of the temptations that result in questionable behavior by elected officials.
We'll never have a perfect set of ethics laws on the books, but we can do a little better than what we have now.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.