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Our Views: A deficit of trust
Members of Congress, legislature should work for the publics interest, not their own
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

With the new session of Congress begun and Georgia legislators preparing to bang their gavel a week from Monday, it’s a good time to examine what we expect from our elected employees.

At both the national and state level, issues come and go, big and small. But before elected officials can take on the people’s business, they first must earn the people’s trust. And this is where they often fall short.

The people elected to serve in our legislative bodies are mostly well-intentioned, patriotic souls who want to serve their state and nation. But sadly, power sometimes clouds one’s judgment on matters that should seem crystal clear, spawning an arrogance that drives a wedge between lawmakers and the people.

Our stomach for legislative hubris was made queasy last week when we witnessed the ultimate in government sausage-making. Congress and the White House drained the hourglass to the last grains of sand to strike a tax cut deal and avoid the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and budget cuts swimming in the rapids below. The deal they concocted was a half-loaf for some, a slice or two less for others, and merely postponed the issue until another deadline will lead to another last-minute patch job.

Let’s hope the new arrivals in Washington, including Gainesville’s own Rep. Doug Collins, learn those lessons and avoid being corrupted by insulating themselves from the public they serve.

Our country is deeply divided on the basic philosophy of governance, the nation’s problems a Rubik’s cube no one can solve and common ground hard to reach. But even if gridlock keeps them at odds, our leaders at least can act honorably and keep us in the loop.

Closer to home, Georgia legislators go to work in eight days. One choice they’ll make is whether to limit gifts they can accept from lobbyists. Though such legislation failed in last year’s session and was derided as a “gimmick,” voters disagreed. In last year’s primary, voters of both parties overwhelmingly supported a nonbinding referendum that would clamp down on such goodies.

Apparently, that got their attention. Speaker David Ralston, who earlier said such ethics rules were a partisan agenda from la-la land, now says he’ll go one step further and offer to ban gifts altogether. He was among those who earlier insisted handouts from lobbyists are just the cost of doing business in the Capitol, and that they don’t influence anyone’s votes. We don’t buy that, but even if no votes were swayed by such offerings, they widen the gulf between lawmakers and the people and create doubt as to whether votes are being bought.

They should remember we’re still crawling out of a long recession that has left many people out of work and others scrambling to get by. Nobody is buying those folks steaks or luxury suites at Falcons games. If the people are the bosses and the legislators work for us, why are they getting freebies the rest of us have to pay for?

One example of this is the habit of providing tickets to Georgia and Georgia Tech football games for lawmakers, some $25,000 to $30,000 worth paid by the schools’ fundraising arms. Some lawmakers say attending football games gives them a chance to visit the campuses and see firsthand what our institutions of higher learning are doing with all those taxpayer dollars.

Seriously. They said this with a straight face.

“I think it’s a benefit to the schools for the legislators who make decisions on those schools to come to those football games,” said Rep. Ron Ehrhart, a Powder Springs Republican. “I think they are able to show off the university at those events.”

Someone should inform Rep. Ehrhart that UGA and Tech are open for business weekdays as well when classes are in session, as are state-funded colleges who don’t play big-time football. If he and his colleagues are interested in learning more about higher education, visiting an academic setting would provide a better view than dropping in to tailgate on fall Saturdays.

“We have legislators who have never been to campus,” Georgia Tech lobbyist Dene Sheheane said.

So apparently the only way to lure them there is with a football game and a pregame buffet. Without crowds swarming in for the big games, lawmakers can’t find their way there on their own. Perhaps lobbyists could pony up for a GPS for each of them before the gift ban kicks in.

This is one reason voters lose trust in public officials. It’s not only the gifts but also the sly way they justify taking them. You like going to football games? Fine. Pull out your wallet and buy a ticket. And be honest about it; don’t shovel out “we need to visit the campuses” nonsense when all you want to do is watch a game.

That lack of trust is cited as one of the key reasons the transportation sales tax vote failed last year despite a strong push from its proponents. Georgians didn’t feel like handing over more of their hard-earned money to a group of people who think free dinners and game tickets grow on trees as perks that come with the job.

Solving the state’s and nation’s problems is a hard job. We need people who are capable and committed to do it right. That starts with being the kind of people we trust with our money, our families and our security. That trust needs to be earned, not just at election time but throughout their terms in office.

That campaign to win us over starts now in Washington and Atlanta. Show us you’re worthy of what we sent you there to do. We’re watching.

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