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Our Views: Trust us wont do
New ethics alliance is right; tougher laws are needed to limit all gifts to legislators
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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.

Of the many issues that divide those on the edges of the political spectrum, there is one on which they most often agree: Government officials should be held to the highest ethical standards.

It's a bipartisan topic if there was one, because scandals over time have involved politicians from both sides. Agree or disagree with an elected official, we at least expect those who work for the people to act with integrity.

This is why several advocacy groups from across the ideological strata have come together to call for tighter ethics laws in Georgia's state and local governments. The group calls itself The Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform and includes Common Cause Georgia, the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Georgia Watch and We the People Advocate Ray Boyd.

In the minds of these organizations, and most voters, clean and transparent government is not a liberal or conservative issue. If you can't trust the people you elect to work for you instead of themselves, what difference does it make what they stand for?

This group is pushing the Georgia General Assembly this year to adopt a tighter ethics law, one that puts caps on how much lobbyists can spend when wining and dining government officials.

The legislature did pass an ethics law in 2010, but most feel it took only baby steps. It didn't limit what legislators can accept from lobbyists; it merely made them more responsible for reporting what gifts they receive from lobbyists, and increased penalties for those who violate the law. It also made campaign finance disclosures more accessible to Georgians by requiring candidates to report their contributions and spending on a regular basis to an online database.

The current law has a major, perhaps fatal flaw in its sweeping definition of a lobbyist and who is required to register as such. The law, as it is now written, says that anyone who expresses an opinion on legislation as part of a job for which they are compensated is in fact a lobbyist, which could be construed to cover everyone from government staffers to editorial writers and clerks working for nonprofits. If nothing else, the legislature needs to address that issue this year.

The new legislation also renamed the joint ethics committee but failed to give it any teeth to enforce a tougher code of conduct. That's why an independent body would best be able to clamp down on possible violations. As long as legislators continue to police themselves, there is the chance their ethics panels will choose to look the other way if it best serves their members' long-term interests.

The law was a first step, but we agree with The Georgia Alliance that it doesn't go far enough. It allows legislators to decide for themselves if it's OK to take tickets to a football game or a trip to a beach resort as long as they report it. They can then do so knowing few of their constituents will take the time to check it out.

The new group wants to limit gifts from a lobbyist to a public official or their family members to $100. That would leave room for a nice lunch or dinner chat on key issues, but cut out the kind of big-ticket expenditures that can lead to a true conflict of interest. House Speaker David Ralston pushed for the bill last year to show that the new sheriff in the Gold Dome wasn't going to condone the type of shenanigans we saw under the previous leadership. But if he's really serious about cleaning the House, he and other leaders should be willing to go further.

This year, granted, legislators are understandably preoccupied with the key matters of state: budget cuts, transportation needs, water and education. But a stronger ethics law will better give them the foundation of public trust they need to make those difficult decisions.

In most cases, the ethical breaches at the Capitol aren't the result of crooked lawmakers and lobbyists scratching each other's backs at the public's expense, though that clearly does occur. We'd still like to think that, for the most part, our state officials are law-abiding, honest folk who want to do right by their voters.

What they frequently fail to see, however, is how a perk that they believe to be innocent can seem to those who pay their salaries. In their hearts, they may know that the steak dinner, box seats at a car race or plane ride to the Georgia coast did nothing to influence their votes. But there's only one way for voters to know that for sure, and that's for them to stop accepting such gifts, period.

We've said it before, but it bears repeating: In politics, perception is reality. The legislator who believes he or she has done nothing wrong can't keep and earn voters' full trust with even the appearance that influence has been bought and sold. It's not enough that we take their word for it. The burden of proof is on them.

That's why a stronger ethics law is needed to severely curtain the kind of largesse lobbyists and benefactors can spend on public officials. It's the only way to know for certain that whatever money is spent doesn't cross the line into bribery.

This should in no way hamper the important work lobbyists do. Those who represent interests in the legislature play an important role in advocating laws for their industries, interests and, in many cases, on the public's behalf.

But those ideas should stand on their own merit and not earn favor because they come with a big jug of sweetener to wash them down.

We're on board with the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, and we hope the state House and Senate will give their ideas serious consideration. It's time our state leaders proved their trustworthiness by passing stronger ethics rules that will leave no wiggle room for those who seek to serve their own interests instead of ours.