Ralston’s Reform Too Good to Be True

Ralston's Reform Too Good to Be True

How wonderful it would be for Georgia';s ethics commission to be able to write rules again. It would be a marvelous thing for lobbyists to lose their ability to give unlimited gifts to government officials in this state. The two … Continue reading

House Speaker David Ralston spoke to members of the media on Tuesday, Jan. 29, as he unveiled his long-awaited plan for ethics reform.

Photo by: Jason Getz of the AJC jgetz@ajc.com

How wonderful it would be for Georgia’s ethics commission to be able to write rules again. It would be a marvelous thing for lobbyists to lose their ability to give unlimited gifts to government officials in this state. The two bills presented by Georgia’s House Speaker, David Ralston, contain many legitimate and praiseworthy ideas.

We’re pleased to see an actual debate about ethics reform emerge at the start of this session. After the last two years of claims that the status quo should be acceptable, we want to encourage honest conversation about transparency and influence to continue.

But it’s a predictable shame that the ethics bills at hand start a conversation covered in political poison.

Common Cause Georgia will be working over the next few days to rescue otherwise-fine legislation from additional provisions that appear designed to damage transparency and access to government for the common citizen — provisions that make these proposals impossible to support overall for people committed to real reform.

For example, currently out-of-state corporate and political lobbyists have the ability to easily move among legislators without monitoring. In an “attempt” to contain this, Ralston’s proposal would define lobbyists broadly. On its face, this seems like an appropriate posture to take. But the language is so broad that anyone advocating for anything in front of any public officer other than one of their own elected officials would have to pay $320 to register as a lobbyist. No distinction is made between $500-an-hour corporate lobbyists and volunteer groups. You talk, you pay. Church groups, political activists, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, social clubs, parent-teacher associations: you talk, you pay.

Even sending email or Facebook requests encouraging friends to contact their representatives would, by the letter of the law, require the sender to register and issue disclosure reports to the state ethics commission every two weeks. As a practical matter, the highly-compensated lobbyist would simply write the check, while the average citizen would be shut out of discussion.

In another example, the proposal calls for a complete ban on lobbyist gifts, which would be a tremendous achievement from an ethics standpoint. But the ban doesn’t apply if gifts are offered to entire subcommittee “_ and some subcommittees have a membership of exactly one legislator. The ban also doesn’t apply to trips for public officers on “official duties,” which are undefined, and “public officers” are just about anyone elected to a position in state or local government, and even some political appointees.

The proposal would reduce the workload of the ethics commission by allowing county and municipal candidates to file their ethics reports to their county government and not the state level. Common Cause Georgia supports this, but only as long as those reports are required to be available online. Ralston’s bill makes no such requirement. As a practical matter, then, county commissioners could file paper documents about how they had raised and spent money on their campaigns — documents which may never be digitized and would be even more difficult to examine than they are today. It would effectively make things less transparent than they are now.

There’s much to praise in the legislation. The bills would restore rule-making authority to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — formerly (and rightfully) called the state ethics commission. The bill would also impose limits on reimbursement for travel expenses during official business.

The problem isn’t with the good, but the bad. The “poison pill” provisions are classic wrecking maneuvers. Lay out good law, with things that everyone wants, but tie it to something that would have to be opposed by anyone with sense. Then it’s easy to claim that the will for reform isn’t there when it fails.

The public will exists. Common Cause Georgia will work to pull the poison pill elements out of these proposals and offer specific changes to the legislative language which would make these laws work. Sign on if you would like to help us.