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Well, it’s better than nothing. Barely.
Those looking forward to stronger ethics legislation from the recently completed General Assembly session were left with less than a half loaf and wanting more.
To be fair, the bill limiting gifts from lobbyists is better than the void it filled. Before, lawmakers needed only to report their treasure trove of gifts, listed on a website for all to see. Except, of course, most voters don’t bother to check it, and few state officials seem to fear they will, based on token or absent opposition most faced in the 2012 election.
It appeared for awhile no bill would pass as the Senate and House remained at odds over a dollar amount to set limiting gifts (the House said zero; the Senate, $100). That raised suspicions the attempt might be a charade, a frenzied effort to appear committed to the cause while letting it die under the cloak of disagreement. In the end, a compromise bill was agreed to on the final day, and rushed to a vote before most members could fully consider it.
There would not have been a bill at all without the nonbinding referendum on the July primary ballot that showed a strong preference for lobbying limits from voters of both parties. Prior to that, House Speaker David Ralston blew off such efforts as a “silly” left-wing witch hunt. Other members expressed hurt feelings that anyone would think their votes could be swayed by a steak dinner, plane ride to the beach or football tickets.
Once the public weighed in, minds changed and Sen. Josh McKoon, a voice in the wilderness to that point, was able to propose his bill to cap gifts. Ralston then decided to go one better and cut out gifts entirely with his House plan.
That is, except for the fine print. Despite good intentions by McKoon and others, there are enough loopholes in the final version to keep most of the goodies flowing.
For instance, while lobbyists may not lavish gifts on an individual lawmaker beyond the compromise price of $75, they are not limited in how much they can spend on a group, be it members of committee or the whole Assembly.
Even worse, it includes loose restrictions as to whom is affected by the limits. State employees were made exempt, though many lobby on behalf of their organizations.
Guess who that includes? The state university system and the World Congress Center, the very groups able to pony up ballgame tickets with impunity. Seems legislators might be willing to give up a nice dinner here and there but not their Bulldogs and Falcons. Those who hire them still have to pay a hefty price to see those teams in person.
Another loophole could keep lawyers from having to register and adhere to the rules as long as they are “advising” their clients without being expressly paid to lobby. Now there’s a gap you could drive a truck through. Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, even conceded that such lawyers would be on the “honor system” to register their intentions.
Not to take a dig at the legal profession and the fine people who practice it, but let’s get real. Lawyers don’t live by fuzzy rules; their profession is based on how they can slice the law down to a fine point. It’s nonsense to think they will comply unless required to do so.
Nor should they. If legislators really wanted a law to limit lobbying gifts and not just dance around the issue, they would have passed one. And they didn’t.
This is why Common Cause Executive Director William Perry referred to the bill as “a mess.” All it seems to do is complicate a simple issue and pretend to keep special interest from filling lawmakers’ pockets and bellies while doing little to change the status quo.
To be fair, the legislature did have a productive session in some areas. The state budget is balanced, as required by the Constitution, and amid more cuts it restores some funding for education. Grade-point standards to qualify for HOPE Grants for technical and vocational schools was lowered, giving those students a needed boost.
Legislators shuffled off the hospital “tax” to a state agency to levy, but doing so helped fill a hole in the state’s Medicaid budget. Juvenile justice reform will defer more nonviolent young offenders to rehabilitation courts instead of jail, saving money and giving troubled youngsters a more hopeful path.
All told, it was a fairly productive session. If the final version of ethics reform had matched the rhetoric and the promises made, we could have given the legislature an A-plus this year.
Perhaps we can consider the lobbying bill a flawed first attempt and seek a do-over next year. Here’s hoping someone will step up and seek to close those gaping loopholes and provide real reform and the will to enforce it.
Lobbyists provide a key service in the legislative process to inform and advise legislators, and no one wants to curtail that. But those important discussions can be held just as easily in a Capitol office over coffee, Cokes and doughnuts than at a stock car race or a seaside villa on Jekyll Island.
When we finally get to that point, we’ll know our legislators are working for us and not their own personal interests.