Op-ed: Lawmakers should ‘get the job done’ on ethics

[This editorial was published April 19 in the Georgia Report.]

The Georgia Legislature has an opportunity to pass meaningful ethics reform. They should stop passing the buck and get the job done.

Georgians are hungry for integrity in the political process. It has become tattered and we the people are disgusted with the greed, backroom deals, and unscrupulous antics taking place in our state capitol.

The current proposed ethics bill (SB 17) does not restrict lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators. In fact, it specifically exempts lobbyists from having to disclose the “reimbursement or payment of actual and reasonable expenses for food, beverages, travel, transportation, lodging, registration, and other related activities for a meeting which is provided to a public officer to permit such public officer’s participation in such meeting.”

Under this proposal, a lobbyist could legally buy a legislator a first class trip to the tropics, including airfare, accommodations at the Ritz Carlton, and room service and it would not have to be disclosed if the trip was for the purpose of a meeting. The people of Georgia deserve better than that.

HB 920, which was introduced in January by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), would have placed monetary limits on gifts that public officials can receive from lobbyists. The bill was signed by more than 40 House members, including members from both parties and an independent.

However, House leaders instead decided to use SB 17 as the vehicle for ethics reform. The current version of SB 17 does not include a limit on gifts to elected officials, thereby leaving the door wide open for moneyed special interests to continue to influence those elected to serve the people.

It’s hard for the voice of the little guy to be heard over the din created by unrestricted gifts from special interests. If the legislature wants to substantively change the culture in state politics then they should do the right thing and clamp down on practices that at the very least create the appearance of impropriety. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

The ethics bill should be cleaned up to provide more disclosure and transparency. It should be done right and it should be done now.