The terrain of ethics legislation in Georgia could best be described as a minefield. After several well documented scandals that involved representatives’ affairs, lobbyists’ gifts, and what would be best entitled as immoral indiscretions, pressure began to mount for substantive ethics reform.
According to a poll conducted by The Center for Public Integrity, Georgia ranked as the worst state in the union for ethics. That’s pretty shocking when other states have to account for cities like Detroit and Chicago. What makes Georgia unique is how legislators frame laws to adumbrate public transparency while synchronously shifting funds to their supporting PACs, businesses, wallets and leisure.
Grassroots organizations like The Atlanta Tea Party, Georgia Conservatives in Action and Georgian Alliance for Ethics Reform have also noticed the dubious amounts of extravagant gifts bestowed upon Georgia lawmakers by lobbyists.
Several of these grassroots organizations ruffled the feathers of Speaker David Ralston. Some would assert, as a result of their constant presence and advocacy, Speaker Ralston came under fire for the same behavior this bill intends to halt. He was heavily scrutinized last year for travel and alleged inaccurate expense reporting.
Senator Dan Balfour faced an ethics complaint from activists for similar alleged behavior.
As citizen activist and volunteers frequented the halls of The Capitol to discuss (or express contempt over) legislation which included the right to protest, budget issues, school choice and ethics reform, they often butted heads with assembly leaders.
The sole legislator to take on the issue of ethics reform was Columbus Senator Josh McKoon. The Senator, however, was unceremonious stymied by chairmen in The House-Senate Conference Committee. It seemed that legislators believed an ethics issue was non-existent. They also sensed that the public approved of the gifts received from lobbyist.
Yes, politicians can be just that delusional.
Tuesday, House Speaker David Ralston has introduced new legislation that, at first glance, seems promising. House Bill 142 would ban most gifts from lobbyist. This means no more comped tickets to sporting events, concerts and travel courtesy of lobbyist. It would allot more control and oversight to The State Ethics Committee and expand requirements for campaign finance
Not so fast, this bill has a dark side.
The bill will also broaden the definition of “lobbyist.” Any group or individual seeking to speak to a legislator about any issue would be considered a lobbyist, This would affect citizen advocates and grassroots organizations as they would have to pony-up over $300 and register as lobbyist
This fee is being labeled “a first amendment tax” by conservative and liberal grassroots organizations.
Senator McKoon agrees:
You couldn’t go before your city council or your county commission, your board of education without having to pay a $300 fee. Really what it is, is a First Amendment Tax. You’re having to pay a $300 fee to exercise your right to petition your government.
This legislation also contains loopholes as wide as The Grand Canyon. Though the bill bans most gifts to individual legislators, it provides exemptions on gifts for committees, caucuses and subcommittees. This means most gifts are banned, unless you receive them with your legislative buddy in arms.
While this bill is certain to be amended as it travels through the general assembly, as it stands now, it leaves many to question whether Georgia lawmakers are truly serious about ethics reform.