The Georgia House of Representatives has passed an ethics reform bill and has sent it on its way to the Senate for its consideration and action.
But don’t get out the confetti just yet. What one body sees as true ethics reform, the other sees as a desultory effort to curb the power and influence of those lizard-loafered lobbyists skulking the halls of the Gold Dome. We the Unwashed? We are caught in the middle, as usual.
No one has been more critical of House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, for his past refusal to enact meaningful legislation and to have us rely instead on an after-the-fact reports on the website of the Georgia Government Transparency and (exhale) Campaign Finance Commission than I have been. His trip to Germany in 2010 with an unregistered Washington lobbyist stuck to him like white on rice and nothing he could say or do would make that controversy go away. Sometimes, even the most astute politicians underestimate our reactions to their actions.
To the speaker’s credit, he saw the writing on the wall when Georgians voted in overwhelming numbers in last year’s Democratic and Republican primaries for substantial ethics reform. Ralston pushed through the House a piece of legislation that I think is a good step in the right direction.
Of course, anything at this point would be a step in the right direction given the total lack of regulation on lobbyist expenditures up to this point. But the House bill still has some major holes that need to be plugged.
The House would bar lobbyists from paying for golf outings, tickets to professional sporting events and individual meals by “private interests,” but not the University System of Georgia, composed of the state’s public colleges and universities and who have access to football tickets. (Wink! Wink!)
Since there is no law yet to prevent them from doing so, lobbyists of all ilk and hues continue to wine and dine legislators just like the good old days. According to reports filed with the Ethics Commission, the same week that the measure passed the House, 164-4, lizard-loafered lobbyists doled out nearly $4,400 on individual House members.
My favorite? Lobbyist William Woodall dispensed some $80 in “ag products” to legislators. What are ag products? Snuff.
One of the four members who voted against the bill, freshman Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Cobb County, accepted a dinner from the State Bar of Georgia for $140.78 and a $13.50 necktie from Children’s Health Care of Atlanta on the day of the vote.
The House bill permits sponsoring events for the entire General Assembly or for committees or subcommittees of the legislature. From Feb. 25, when the measure was approved in the House, until you read these words, lobbyists will have already spent nearly $32,000 on House and Senate committees and local delegations according to Ethics Commission filings.
Add to that, the almost $4,400 spent on individuals members of the House and we are talking about $38,000 being shelled out by our lizard-loafered friends in the week the bill passed the House!
What can we expect out of the Senate regarding ethics reform? So far, that body has passed a rule that caps lobbyist gifts to its members at $100 but permits lobbyist expenditures for the General Assembly, Senate committees and local delegations.
Clearly, there is much work yet to be done to assure meaningful ethics reform in Georgia and these two deliberative bodies must come to some understanding this session on a solution. It is not going to be pretty. We are not only dealing with ethics reform here; we are dealing with some very outsized egos.
Rest assured that the very lobbyists who are in the process of having their wings clipped by legislators feeling the heat from constituents are going to be busy looking for loopholes to continue business as usual. As their activities indicate since the passage of the reform bill in the House, they show no signs of slowing down.
I commend the House and Ralston for having gotten ethics reform this far, but it still needs work. Let us see what the state Senate can do to make it better. Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, says his members intend to do just that.
We the Unwashed? We can only sit and wait. In the meantime, I would suggest you hold on to the confetti for a while longer. I have a feeling that this party isn’t over by a long shot.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint. Contact him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.