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Crawford: How historic is state's ethics legislation?
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One of the major questions still to be answered in this year’s legislative session is whether the House and Senate will actually agree on some kind of bill to limit what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers.

There is a basic disagreement between the two chambers over how this issue should be handled.

Speaker David Ralston and his House colleagues want to prohibit lobbyist gifts to individual legislators completely, although their bill has large loopholes that allow lobbyists to spend money on groups of lawmakers.

The Senate wants to limit lobbyist gifts to $100, although that chamber’s bill would allow lobbyists to bestow an unlimited number of these gifts upon legislators.

It’s impossible to say whether the House version or the Senate version will prevail. We could see the two chambers remain deadlocked in the closing days and find themselves unable to reach an agreement.

That would preserve the existing system where lobbyists have no limits on what they can spend, but would also allow legislators to say, "Hey, we really tried to do something but those guys across the rotunda wouldn’t let us."

If an ethics bill does manage to pass both chambers, you can bet that the leadership will call it "historic" and claim that the bill will change the culture at the Capitol for a long time to come.

If that sounds familiar, it should. We hear it every few years when legislators try to deal with the pesky issue of ethics.

After Rep. Ken Poston succeeded in getting a bill passed in 1992 that required lobbyists for the first time to disclose how much they spend, Gov. Zell Miller said this: "It is going to change the face of Georgia politics for many years to come."

In this case, "many years" amounted to 10 years. When Sonny Perdue won the governor’s race in 2002, one of his campaign promises was that he would work to strengthen the state’s ethics laws.

In 2005, the new Republican majority in the legislature adopted an ethics revision bill supported by Perdue. "You're going to make history tonight by passing the strongest ethics reform package Georgia has ever seen," Perdue told legislators shortly before they voted on the bill on the last night of the session.

It was only five years later that lawmakers found themselves compelled to fix "the strongest ethics reform package" the state had ever seen. This bill was needed to clean up the mess left by the former House speaker, Glenn Richardson, who had been in charge when the last ethics reform measure was passed.

Richardson, you’ll remember, was encouraged by his colleagues to resign immediately after his former wife told a TV interviewer that Richardson had had an affair with a female lobbyist.

Richardson’s successor, Ralston, helped write the 2010 ethics bill and made an impassioned speech urging the House to pass what he called "one of the more important propositions" of the session.

"We had to respond to some problems we had in a very forceful way. This bill does that," Ralston said. "We had to change some of the ways we did business in this House, and we've done that. This bill gets it right. Let's show the people of Georgia we heard from you and we can deal with our own issues here."

Oddly enough, Ralston’s bill didn’t seem to "get it right" either. As the media reported on numerous occasions over the next two years, lobbyists continued to spend heavily in their efforts to persuade legislators to pass whatever the lobbyists requested – which our lawmakers were only too happy to do.

This distressing practice became so widely known that the voters finally said, "Enough!" In last year’s primary elections, Republican and Democratic voters overwhelmingly endorsed straw vote issues calling for a restriction on lobbyist gifts to legislators.

That brings us to this year’s General Assembly session and the latest attempt to pass a bill that really will fix the problem this time. At least, that’s what they’ll tell you if the House and Senate are able to agree on a compromise ethics bill

If that bill passes, you’ll forgive me if I don’t get very excited about it. I’ve heard all this before – many times.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.

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