I wonder if our intrepid public servants at the Gold Dome understand how arrogant and out-of-touch they look to We the Unwashed — or if they even care.
Case in point: The Atlanta newspaper has reported that House Speaker David Ralston took a trip over the Thanksgiving holidays to Germany and the Netherlands with his family and his chief of staff and spouse, courtesy of a Washington-based lobbying firm. The cost? $17,000.
The purpose of the trip — according to a group of people attempting to keep a straight face — was to help the speaker understand how European countries have made rail an economic development tool and to assess the potential for creating a rail corridor linking Chattanooga and Atlanta.
The firm paying the bill was Commonwealth Research Associates. A visit to their website reveals they have done work on high-speed rail projects in the United States, including a magnetic levitation train to run between Chattanooga and Atlanta.
Why Thanksgiving? Why family on the trip? Ralston told the newspaper, "I wanted to be with my family during Thanksgiving, and that was the only week I could go due to my schedule. I wanted to be with my wife and kids. I don't apologize for that."
As my momma would have said, "Bless his heart."
This Thanksgiving turkey of a trip assumes, of course, that the Chattanooga-to-Atlanta rail corridor project is just around the corner and the need for the visit was urgent — we all know the warp speed with which legislation moves in our state — and that Chief of Staff Spiro Amburn's wife was needed to provide onsite analysis of the potential economic benefits for We the Unwashed, lest the whole project die abornin'.
It also assumes that the trip was so critical that the speaker didn't have time to dish out the cash from his own pocket to spring for some tourist seats on Lufthansa for his family.
The freebie trip to Europe is not an isolated incident for Ralston. According to public records, in the three months since the November 2010 elections he has accepted some $22,000 in gifts, meals and tickets to sporting events from a number of organizations, including my alma mater, AT&T, as well as Delta Airlines, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the University System of Georgia. By my calculations, that is roughly $238 a day, including weekends, of free stuff, and we aren't even to Valentine's Day.
Speaker Ralston and fellow legislators and lobbyists would like We the Unwashed to believe that these kinds of things are no big deal and don't influence how our intrepid public servants manage the tax dollars we have entrusted to their care.
Our intrepid public servants must think we are dumber than a rock.
The next time a politician tells you, "A free meal or a free trip isn't going to influence my vote," throw up on their shoes. Otherwise, why would lobbyists spend the money?
Georgia has some of the weakest ethics laws on the books. That is by design.
I had the privilege to serve as a member of the State Ethics Commission, known today as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. The advantage was clearly in the politicians' favor. After all, they wrote the law. Even being the perpetual underdog, we managed to nail a few elected officials with five-figure fines for thinking they were above the law, but the game was rigged against us.
The ethics laws have since been updated. Lobbyists are required to file reports more frequently but the law doesn't set a limit on what those lobbyists can spend. That is akin to putting lipstick on a pig. It may make the pig feel more attractive, but it is still a pig.
There is a new organization afoot called the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, composed of several government watchdog groups. The alliance could be a force to be reckoned with in strengthening our state's ethics laws. That is because one of the principals in the group is Bob Irvin, former Republican lawmaker and minority leader in the Georgia House for six years. Irvin and his colleagues want new ethics legislation that would cap lobbyists' gift at $100.
Capping lobby gifts at $100 should pose no problem to Commonwealth Research Associates or to Ralston. The speaker could still take his family to Berlin next Thanksgiving — the one in Colquitt County (Pop. 595.) They could even ride the bus.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can reach him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.