Ralston now on right side of ethics reform
Are you sitting down? I had a meeting with House Speaker David Ralston last week at the Capitol.
Got your breath yet? There’s more. It was a good meeting.
Several of our mutual friends had been trying for some time to get the speaker and me together, saying we might have more in common than not. Had I been running the speaker’s business, the meeting would have occurred long before now.
Some of our intrepid public servants don’t seem to understand that ignoring the media is a bad strategy. Ignoring me is even worse. You present me an information void and I will fill that sucker up with my opinions faster than you can say “sine die.”
While Ralston and I may have a lot in common in the eyes of our mutual friends, we have been far apart on the matter of lobbyist expenditures. He had deemed as satisfactory the current system of unlimited spending by lobbyists and reporting those expenditures after the fact on the Ethics Commission website. He has changed his mind and has a proposal that would alter significantly the cozy lobbying environment under the Gold Dome. That was the purpose of our meeting.
If I was looking for a pompous, thin-skinned, self-important politician ready to kick my fanny over my seemingly incessant sarcastic comments on the subject, I was to be surprised. Ralston was affable and relaxed and even cracked a joke or two about “lizard-loafered lobbyists.” Whew!
The speaker says when you spoke your concerns about lobbying limits during the recent elections, he heard you. Smart move. More than 80 percent of you said you wanted to see the cozy relationship between legislators and lobbyists changed. That, he says, is what he is trying to do.
Ralston says his bill is in no way an attempt to throttle free speech as some have claimed. He quickly revised his proposal after hearing complaints that the measure would discourage individuals from coming to the Capitol to express their personal views. Now, the focus is on those who represent organizations — volunteers and lobbyists — that spend more than five days a year advocating for or against an issue. They would have to pay a $25 fee and file disclosure reports.
One legislator told me that when someone comes into his office, paid or unpaid, and tells him how many members they represent and how many live in his district and suggests strongly that it would be in the legislator’s interest to vote their way — that is a lobbyist, pure and simple. I agree.
Ralston believes some are trying to obfuscate the spirit of the legislation by railing — my words, not his — about stifling freedom of speech and miss the bigger and more important pieces, such as a complete ban on lobbyist expenditures on individual legislators: meals, tickets to athletic events, concerts and other entertainment.
There is an exception that would allow reimbursement for travel to conferences (no golf) and food and beverage at events for committees or for all members of the House and Senate.
Near and dear to my heart is restoring rule-making authority to the Georgia Government Transparency and (exhale) Campaign Finance Commission, better known to We the Unwashed as the State Ethics Commission.
I was a member of the commission for five years. The commission deserves more respect than it has gotten from petty politicians in the past that resented the group enforcing the ethics laws (such as they were) and tried to make them irrelevant. This bill will bring some integrity back to the process and that fact doesn’t need to get lost in the controversy over who pays and who doesn’t.
I would suggest that those yelling about being asked to play the lobbing game on a level playing field stifle their self-interests long enough to push for the significant and positive changes contained in this bill.
While the speaker’s proposal isn’t perfect, it is a good start in the right direction. The bill is certainly better than the State Senate rule that caps lobbyist expenditures at $100 and has more holes in it than my favorite sweater.
To his credit, Ralston has gotten the message he had up to this time chosen to ignore. I am glad our mutual friends got us together and that I heard his views firsthand.
I don’t think we are ready to exchange Christmas cards yet list but at least we are on speaking terms. That’s a good start.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays. Contact him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.