What do you think? Log on and add your comments below or send us a letter to the editor. Letters may be send by e-mail to email@example.com (no attached files, please, which can contain viruses) or or click HERE for a form.
Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
Ask most members of the Georgia General Assembly and they all will tell you that they are four-square behind efforts to improve ethics for the state's elected officials and gung-ho for reforms to make the operations of government more transparent.
So much so, in fact, that just last year they passed new ethics reform legislation that really promises to shine the light on conduct of state officials and their dealing with lobbyists who advocate for or against particular pieces of legislation.
Except that the new reform may be fatally flawed and need to be revised yet again with a replacement that interjects just a smidgen of common sense into state politics. If, in fact, that is possible.
The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, formerly simply known as the Ethics Commission, has drafted an advisory opinion on its interpretation of the current law as it applies to the registration of lobbyists. That opinion is expected to become official Monday. It is inane.
Well, the opinion may not be inane. It may be an accurate portrayal of what the law says. More likely, it's the law itself that lacks any pretense at common sense.
The opinion by the GGTCFC comes at the request of the state's Chamber of Commerce, which had asked for some clarification of the state law enacted last year. The Chamber's position was that only those paid for the purpose of lobbying lawmakers are expected to register. The GGTCFC says otherwise.
It is the opinion of the commission, which is charged with enforcement of state laws related to political ethics, that everyone employed in Georgia who expresses an opinion to a state lawmaker on any piece of legislation must register as a lobbyist before doing so.
Let that sink in for a minute. You work for a bank, not as a president or in an executive committee, but as a teller. You see your state senator at the grocery store and give him your opinion about a bill pending in a committee. Under this interpretation, you have to register as a lobbyist to do so or you have violated state law.
You are a teacher in a private school. You write your state legislator an e-mail about the state education budget. Now you are a lobbyist and have to register.
You work for a newspaper. You write editorials. You author one about silly state laws and suggest a current law be changed. ... Well, you get the point.
The former ethics commission says the wording of the new law is very succinct and lends itself to only one interpretation. Its opinion says: "The plain language of the above definition states that all natural persons whether compensated as a contractor/consultant or ‘as an employee of another person' are considered to be lobbyists if such persons ‘undertake to promote or oppose the passage of any legislation by the General Assembly, or any committee thereof.'"
Note that it doesn't say the legislation has to be related to the employer for whom you work. Any employee, any legislation.
It also brings to mind this question: Since most of the state lawmakers are employed by others in some capacity when not working under the Gold Dome, can they discuss legislation among themselves when not in session or must they register as lobbyists first?
Registration means paying a $300 fee and filing the same sort of reports required of those who are paid specifically to lobby lawmakers on state issues. And if you don't register, you can be subject to a fine of $2,000.
It's always hazardous to guess what the state's legislative body intended to do when they pass a new law, but it's hard to imagine that lawmakers meant to make casual conversations with an elected state official in the church parking lot subject to lobbyist disclosure laws.
What's not so hard to imagine is that lawmakers, while expressing their zeal for reform, passed a new law so obviously broad in its scope and vague in its definition as to assure it would have to be reworked. It likely wouldn't be the first time such has happened.
It would be easy to accuse lawmakers of making an intentional effort at stifling freedom of speech, but it's unlikely that their intent was so grandiose. What's more probable is that sloppy work led to a poorly written law that promises a bureaucratic nightmare if it stays on the books.
So now what?
State lawmakers can look at the official opinion of the GGTCFC, realize the flaws in the current law and try to correct them in this year's session. Or they can ignore the issue, waiting for a court decision somewhere down the road to declare the law unconstitutional.
Hopefully they'll get it fixed. To be effective, true ethic reform has to be built on an enforceable foundation of credibility. The current fiasco is neither credible, nor enforceable.