Georgia House Speaker David Ralston is now expected to propose an ethics reform package that will include a total ban on gifts and gratuities from lobbyists for lawmakers and other elected officials. This was first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution late last week.
The proposal represents a change from his earlier position where the House Speaker said gift caps were not an effective solution and would just drive spending underground, thus continuing to exist but unreported for public scrutiny. This also is significantly stronger limit than the $100 gift cap proposal backed by Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus and backed by a “gift cap pledge” pushed by Common Cause and TEA Party groups, but rejected by most incumbents of both chambers.
Speaker Ralston urged Republicans at the State GOP Convention in May to resist following the lead of “media elites and liberal interest groups”, believing that the agenda of some of those pushing ethics reform was not ethics reform at all. However, a resolution passed at the same convention combined with a ballot question for both GOP and Democratic primary voters demonstrated overwhelming support for restrictions on gifts from lobbyists.
In addition, the resounding defeat of T-SPLOST referendums throughout much of Georgia seemed to hinge not only on an aversion to pay additional taxes, but to a general lack of trust in elected officials. Those working to pass T-SPLOSTs continually heard that the projects would favor selected insiders and that Georgia’s political class should not be given an additional ten billion dollars to reward the well connected.
Despite a pre-selected project list from locally elected officials the perception of cronyism and influence peddling could not be overcome. Leaders who have remained tone deaf on the need for true ethics reform now seem to understand that something must be done. The loss of several incumbents within the majority caucuses against candidates who ran campaigns on reform platforms seems to have provided some additional motivation.
The news of the Speaker’s change of heart on gift caps was immediately greeted by cynics claiming it was a move of political jujitsu with members of the Senate. Careful observers noted that many Senators made public displays of signing the gift cap pledge within days after Ralston telling the GOP convention that he would effectively block gift caps. Some were the same ones that blocked the legislation just months prior. The implication was that it was safe for them to pander to voters and even vote for a cap, knowing that Ralston would do the heavy political lifting to keep it from becoming law on the House side.
Those same cynics now claim that this will enable the House to pass a bill allowing no lobbyist spending on legislators while the Senate passes a bill with $100 gift caps. Each could then claim they did what the people wanted and blame the other side for nothing becoming law. The status quo would prevail, and all incumbents would be able to claim they had voted for tougher ethics laws.
Instead, for now, there is time to take these gestures as moments of progress and understanding that something must be done. There will be plenty of time to criticize if the cynics are correct. Now should instead be the time to focus on what must be done to get true ethics reform, and not another whitewash such as the 2010 package that looked good in headlines but actually weakened the ability to enforce the rules as passed.
Beyond gift caps or bans, Georgians must continue to insist that there is independent enforcement and accountability. There must be a clear system to investigate and if necessary prosecute those who break our rules and laws. This must be outside the influence of the appointment and appropriations process.
Georgia voters spoke loudly in the July primaries. Resounding support for gift caps was coupled with a strong defeat of T-SPLOST and the loss of several incumbents. The voters are angry, and it is affecting the ability of the majority to govern.
Republicans have one more chance to get this right. Let’s continue to express our desire to our elected officials that they not play games here, but ensure that there is a true ethics reform package signed into law early next year.