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Gold Dome 2010: Cleaning up the Capitol
With new speaker comes ethics push to limit gifts to lawmakers
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Legislative assistants, from left Robert Hughes, Keri Ward, Madeline Timm, and Terence Johnson, place paperwork on desks Friday in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Atlanta. Monday marks the first legislative session of 2010. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Viewpoint: New Speaker to set a different tone

The issues

Legislators say these are the top three issues they'll be facing when they return to the Gold Dome on Monday.

BUDGET
State tax collection rates continue to stay low and stimulus funds will soon dry up. For 13 straight months, tax collections in the state have declined. Republican leaders have pledged not to raise taxes so the only choice is more cuts. Georgia's Constitution bans state officials from running a budget deficit. Legislators plan on having to cut approximately another $1 billion or so from the state's $18.6 billion budget while finding a way to preserve the state's education system.

WATER
Legislators are expected to get moving on various conservation measures recommended by the Governor's Water Contingency Task Force. A federal judge ruled last summer that metro Atlanta had few rights to Lake Lanier, the area's main source of water. The judge gave officials until 2012 to strike a deal with Florida and Alabama, which also depend on Lake Lanier for water and are battling for rights to the federal reservoir. The governor's panel late last year urged state legislators to tie water conservation requirements to state permits and devote more funding to water-efficient rebate programs. There may not be money to find in the state's bare-bones budget to build more reservoirs.

TRANSPORTATION
Legislators will also be looking to break a stalemate on transportation funding to help with metro Atlanta's nagging traffic troubles. Last year, the House and Senate deadlocked over competing funding plans. Each would have required voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax hike to fund transportation improvements. But House leaders backed a statewide plan while the state Senate favors a regional approach.

Other issues likely to be debated
Job creation, trauma care, education, property taxes and ethics reform

The Hall County delegation
As the 2010 General Assembly gets ready to start, here's a look at the key issues on the mind of members of the Hall County delegation.

Sen. Lee Hawkins: Personal issues — Job creation and job stability. Protection of health care rights and individual health care choices, along with protection of Lake Lanier.

Rep. Carl Rogers: Personal issues — Rogers plans to work with Gainesville officials on the city's new charter that would allow for an elected mayor; he also plans to introduce local legislation that will create a referendum to allow Gainesville voters to decide to roll back the age of exemption for school board taxes from 72 to 70.

Rep. Doug Collins: Personal issues — Collins has pre-filed a bill that would ban sexual contact between teachers and students no matter the age of consent.

Rep. James Mills: Personal issues — Ensuring no tax increases and dealing with the state's budget, water, transportation and education needs.

 

Former Georgia Speaker Glenn Richardson’s legacy likely will be the reform that follows his scandal-soaked resignation — reform that Richardson may have never let happen.

As the state legislature reconvenes Monday, ethics reform is sure to be a topic of discussion. Reform bills limiting legislators’ relationships with lobbyists already have been filed and more may come.

Richardson, the first GOP speaker since Reconstruction, resigned from the state House’s top position late last year. Richardson’s resignation followed a suicide attempt and an allegation by his ex-wife that he had an affair with an Atlanta Gas Light Co. lobbyist at the same time he was sponsoring legislation that would benefit the utility.

Richardson, who blocked efforts at ethics reform in the past, all but guaranteed legislators will address the issue, and quickly, in his absence this year.

Already, lawmakers from both sides of political party lines have introduced legislation that would limit the gifts public officials receive — event tickets, expensive meals— from lobbyists at the Capitol. And while the details of what kind of reform package legislators will agree on aren’t yet clear, it is clear that there will be a reform package this year, University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said.

Bullock has seen the move toward ethics reform in the Gold Dome before. As recently as 2003, Gov. Sonny Perdue said ethics reform was one of his top priorities; he introduced legislation that later died in the House, Bullock said.

And in the fallout of Richardson’s resignation and the spotlight on more than $50,000 in gifts he received from lobbyists during his time as speaker, there is a renewed energy in the statehouse for ethics reform.

Some say the efforts are to restore credibility; others say it is for perceived political purity in an election year.

Richardson’s presumptive successor, Blue Ridge Republican David Ralston, now says state legislators have an obligation to make voters believe that lawmakers are serving their interests, not those of lobbyists this legislative session.

He says lobbyists’ influence has been too strong over the legislative process, and his election as speaker may have special interests feeling uncertain about their future.

"I think the word of the day at the Capitol for the next little bit is going to be ‘uncertainty,’" said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. "Uncertainty not in the leadership that we have, which is very certain, very stable and very good. ... I think the real change is going to come then with the bills that are processing and the lobbyists and how they deal with the new world, if you would, I think that’s where the uncertainty is. Right now the uncertain world is in the lobbying world."

And Ralston, who was demoted after he challenged Richardson for the gavel in 2009, says he has no qualms about changing things up in the Gold Dome.

"I was sort of truly the outsider in this race," Ralston said. "I got kicked out on the outside last year and so I don’t owe anybody, and I think that’s a little unsettling to the special interests and the lobbyists now because they’re not sure what I’m going to do."

Ralston said he expects House ethics committee chairman Rep. Joe Wilkinson to lead the House in reform in a bipartisan manner.

"What I want to make sure does not happen is that ethics become a political football between the two parties, because I think that’s the surest way that nothing gets done," he said.

There are already house bills from both Democrats and Republicans that seek to limit how much lobbyists can spend on public officials.

Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, and Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, prefiled legislation for this session that Porter says will at least start the conversation.

Porter’s proposed legislation limits the price of gifts lobbyists can give to public officials to $25 and lowers the threshold for campaign contributions.

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, also has an ethics package he introduced earlier last year that limits gifts to $100. Current law only requires that gifts are disclosed but does not limit the amount.

Porter, who serves on the House ethics committee and is a candidate for governor, said his bill is a starting point, with $25 only an arbitrary number meant to start the discussion in the House.

"When I saw the amount of money that’s been spent on the Republican leadership in the House, it just far exceeded anything that’s ever happened in Georgia," Porter said. "That culture that allowed that to happen is wrong, and we’ve got to get back to focusing on what we’re really there for. While they have been off taking trips and whatever they’ve been doing we still can’t get a transportation plan; we’re vulnerable in our water; education continues to get cut; job training is cut, when we know that there are ways that we can meet these challenges. But obviously leadership had their mind on other things."

Porter said ethics legislation should not keep legislators from eating meals at banquets where they are guest speakers, but those events should not be confused with lavish entertainment meant to secure votes, he said.

Richardson, and members of Hall County’s local delegation, have been given hundreds of dollars’ worth of tickets to sporting events from lobbyists who sometimes also pick up the tab for food and drinks at those events.

"There’s a line that has got to be drawn," Porter said. "I guess in the past we’ve all kind of self-policed that."

And with Richardson out of the speaker’s well, Porter said he is optimistic that both parties will be able to sit down together to write effective ethics legislation, which he says is about restoring credibility to the state’s legislative process.

Collins, too, says the recent move toward ethics reform is to protect the legislature’s integrity from a marginal number of representatives and lobbyists who violate the rules.

"I think a vast, vast majority of your legislators down here, both senators and House members, do their very best to stay within what ... is considered very ethical bounds," Collins said. "I think you have to have the bumper pads of rules out there so that people know the boundaries — not just from a representative’s perspective but from a lobbyist’s perspective as well."

In 2009, lobbyists from interests such as Georgia Power, AT&T, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association spent $611.33 on Collins, mostly on meals and drinks.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, received almost five times that in meals, drinks and football tickets from the University System of Georgia, the Georgia Poultry Federation and other interest groups.

Lobbyists spent even more on state Sen. Lee Hawkins, but none of the money spent on the local delegation of state legislators in 2009 compares to the amount heaped on Richardson and other members of the House leadership.

Collins does not deny that ethics need to be addressed in the Gold Dome, but says the approach to reform should be "very methodical, very open-ended," and not just an emotional reaction to recent events. Collins said lobbyists are an important part of the legislative process, though sometimes the lines of appropriate spending have been blurred.

"Let’s take the proper steps that will do the most good," Collins said.

Rogers, however, said ethics legislation may distract House members from their most important task this year: balancing the state’s deficit-addled budget. And Rogers is critical of the intentions of legislators who have filed ethics reform legislation on the coattails of Richardson’s scandalous resignation.

"There’s always a knee-jerk reaction, unfortunately," Rogers said. "I don’t disagree there needs to be some type of reform. The issue we have right now, we have people running for Congress, we’ve got them running for other statewide posts, they may be running for governor or whatever, so they’re trying to get whatever they can get pre-filed ... they do it for their own benefit as far as their campaigns are concerned."

But the budget may well be the issue that holds real ethics reform back this year, said Bullock.

The political scientist, isn’t so sure that effective legislation is possible at a time when legislators may be looking at cutting another $1 billion from the state’s budget.

Good ethics reform, Bullock said, would require funding for an independent agency to randomly review lobbyist spending. And no one expects that to happen this year.

"If you want an agency that’s really got teeth in it, that’s probably what you want to have," Bullock said. "It collects the information, but rather than just filing it away and waiting and see if anybody files a complaint, which is pretty much what the situation’s been for the last several years, you’d want an agency which would randomly go through and pull up records and say ‘well, let’s do an audit and just see if this individual candidate has fully complied with the law.’ I think that’s probably less likely."

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