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Our Views: Forgo the freebies
New ethics law is welcome but it doesnt go far enough to limit gifts to lawmakers
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Better little and late than nothing at all, we reckon.

In the closing days of the General Assembly session, legislators finally found time to pass an ethics reform package they ballyhooed since the first of the year.

The impetus for ethics reform began when House Speaker David Ralston took the gavel from former Speaker Glenn Richardson, whose own ethical missteps led to his fall from power.

Yet through four months of the session, legislators found time to fret over football stadiums, guns in bars and any number of other pandering issues rather than clean up their own house, as promised.

But they did pass it, and we will give credit for that. It passed 168-2 in the House, unanimously in the Senate. One wonders how the two "nay" voters would like to explain their opposition to constituents in their districts. Perhaps they felt the bill didn't go far enough.

Here's what the bill does accomplish:

n Require lobbyists to disclose more frequently what they spend on wining and dining lawmakers, every 15 days during the session and every 30 days the rest of the year.

n Forces local officials to file campaign finance disclosures with the state.

n Boosts fines for lobbyists and officials who are late filing their required disclosure reports.

n Establishes an abuse of power provision and outlaws sexual harassment (Though we must wonder: Was either considered acceptable before?)

n Eliminates the joint ethics panel, which most agree did nothing of consequence, and lets each chamber direct concerns to its own ethics committees.

All of these are necessary steps, and we welcome them. More transparency is important to make sure voters, and the media, can keep track of who is taking what from whom.

Proposed amendments to limit what lobbyists can give legislators was shot down, as well as a provision to keep candidates from transferring money from one campaign committee to another.

Nevertheless, the bill could go a lot farther in limiting what kind of goodies legislators can take in. And it continues to allow lawmakers to police themselves rather than set up an objective panel to do so.

For instance, Richardson was accused of favoring legislation from a lobbyist group that included a person involved in a personal relationship with him. Would the newly passed legislation directly address such a case? Perhaps. But an independent ethics commission would have been more willing to take action in such a case than fellow legislators who could might fear recrimination from their leader.

The whole idea that special interests are allowed to cozy up to lawmakers with such favors should be offensive to voters. When token gifts are offered to all in the chamber with no expectation of a quid pro quo, that's one thing. And serious lobbying does serve an important function in government by bringing key and information issues to lawmakers' attention.

But it's one thing to give lobbyists a meeting to hear their case and seek legislation; it's quite another to do so over a $60 steak and a pitcher of martinis aboard corporate jets on the way to a vacation resort. To lavish lawmakers with freebies in order to push a legislative agenda is the worst form of corruption and needs to be stopped.

We thought this was going to be the case when Ralston, a no-nonsense straight shooter from the Georgia mountains, took over as speaker. It may well be that he encountered resistance from within the ranks and was forced to get whatever ethics bill he could passed.

And make no mistake, this bill is a step in the right direction. It just needs to be the first step of many to get legislators to focus on doing the people's work first, not lining their own pockets.

They need to remember that public trust in government and its officials are at an all-time low, all across the political spectrum. Many voters see their political leaders as self-serving elitists who only listen to constituents' concerns when they want votes or seek money to run for office.

Our leaders say they have our best interests at heart, but it's hard to make that case when they are lining up three abreast to accept complimentary tickets to football games and car races that the rest of us have to pay for.

One way to begin countering that impression would be to better police the inner workings of government. Make legislators more accountable both for what they spend, in the form of travel and other expenses, and what they take in, from pay, perks and gifts.

What we also need are legislators with the strength of character to know right from wrong and make the right decisions. Ethics legislation alone cannot make that happen, but any such legislation that does exist needs to have the punitive power to make a difference for those willing to flaunt basic rules of ethical behavior.

Meaningless fines and figurative slaps on the wrist won't make lawmakers behave better. Harsher punishments are needed, such as the mandatory loss of prestigious legislative positions, removal from office for particularly egregious conduct and criminal prosecution when appropriate.

Lawmakers who seek public office in order to raise their bank accounts or pile up gifts, trips and other "swag" are in politics for the wrong reason. If they can't get by on what we pay them to do the state's business, they are invited to stick to their regular jobs in the private sector.

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