Perspectives on Ethics Reform under the Gold Dome and beyond

Ethics Reform

Common Cause of Georgia and Jim Walls of AtlantaUnfiltered are hosting an event on the Georgia Transparency Project on Monday, May 14, 2012 at PeopleTV, located at 190 14th Street in Atlanta. A reception runs from 6 to 6:45 PM, followed by taping.

The AJC ran two competing Op-eds on the issue of ethics reform under the Gold Dome.

Jet Toney, a long-time professional lobbyist and President of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association traces Georgia’s establishment to lobbying by James Edward Oglethorpe of England’s King James II, and argues that professional lobbyists play an important role in the running of the state legislature.

Georgia state lawmakers depend on a limited number of research staff and committee aides. Professional lobbyists educate officials and staff with information, expertise and perspective that is not always readily available.

Lobbyists also serve as filters of new ideas, pointing to flaws and unintended consequences.

The Founding Fathers made quite clear in the U.S. Constitution that freedom of speech and the right to seek redress from the government are protected.

All citizens should embrace these rights to advocate for his/her beliefs and values. If they do, the role and impact of professional lobbyists will diminish.

Until then, lobbyists will continue to serve as primary participants in public policy discussions, whether it is over a plate of barbecue in the legislator’s hometown or in the starkly clinical setting of a government building.

Toney questions whether a gift ban or limit will improve the results of the legislative process.

Before this is seriously considered, one should look to states where legislators are prohibited from receiving any gift or entertainment, even a cup of coffee.

Are the laws passed in those states more effective than in Georgia? Do the legislators there make better decisions because they’ve interacted less socially with professional policy advocates?

An opposing viewpoint is presented by Don McAdam, who argues that lobbyist gifts to legislators create a perception of conflicts of interest that are damaging to our state government, even in the absence of actual wrongdoing.

This mere perception of a conflict is doing great damage to the integrity of our legislative process. It is maddening to endure the denials of our state’s political leaders. This is why we must toughen lobbying and campaign finance laws. We should have every confidence that laws are considered based on our best interest.

As it is, there are substantial questions regarding the priorities and policies considered by theLegislature, but its leaders refuse to acknowledge that anything is wrong. Unfortunately, their corruption may be correctable only through removal from office.

McAdam points to tax reform that does away with the yearly ad valorem in favor of a sales tax that is called a title transfer fee as an example of what goes wrong when lobbyists wield influence.

[D]id citizens in mass contact their legislators to petition for a tax that would include private car sales? No legislators said that was the case. Although many Georgians cheered the end of the ad valorem tax, questions remain about the influence of lobbyist gifts on the swap that replaced that tax with a broader-based fee.

The fact that auto dealers lobbied for a tax on car sales between individuals and greased the axle of passage with $24,000 in campaign contributions should have prompted lawmakers to pull the emergency brake.

Legislators should have rejected the gifts and campaign contributions. But the “relationship” between auto dealers and our legislators has been cultivated over many years. Legislators and dealers both benefit. The former receive meals, sporting event tickets and election funds, and the latter get favorable treatment.

Of course, that’s not how our legislators see it. Said Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers: “Overall, I know of no impact that any donations had on the tax reform measure.” Most of us don’t believe that, and for good reason. We were not clamoring for this new fee; only auto dealers were.

Kari Storla is a student at Georgia State who writes at the Common Cause Georgia blog, and raises an insightful point.

Think of it this way: Let’s say you’re a college student and you go to the same meeting every week for free food. Eventually, odds are you’re going to start talking to somebody. Maybe you’ll go to a volunteer event or help out with something else because people are starting to recognize you as a regular. If you don’t help them out, you’re not getting any more food and it’s back to ramen. You make a few friends. You agree to pass out flyers and you go to social events because there’s even more free food and free tickets to a concert and what kind of idiot is going to pass that up? And then all of a sudden you’re standing in front of your class, making an announcement promoting the group or organizing a campus rally.

That’s sort of what it would be like to be a legislator dealing with lobbyists. It’s not that you’re the Big Bad Legislator who’s morally corrupt, like a two-dimensional villain in a kid’s cartoon; it’s that you’ve formed relationships. It’s not the one lunch here or there that’s a problem, it’s the months or years worth of lunches that we’re concerned about.

Maybe we shouldn’t even say that legislators are being “bought.” Legislators aren’t commodities to be bought and sold at auction to the highest bidder. They’re people who can make their own decisions. But like all people, they can be influenced. So can legislators be influenced for a lunch? I’d have to see some research on that, but my guess would be it depends on a whole bunch of different factors.

PeachTEAParty suggests that citizens’ failure to actually read up on lobbyist expenditures  is part of the reason lobbyists wield the influence many think they do.

Ever wondered why things never quite go the way you EXPECT at the capitol? Its because the public rarely INSPECTS what actually moves legislation. More often than not, it is well financed lobbying groups which BUY access and favor from our elected officials.

WHO PAID YOUR LOCAL LAWMAKER”S LUNCH? Find out!!

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