The threat (such as it is) of stricter lobbying, ethics and disclosure rules for Georgia lawmakers doesn’t seem to have stanched the flow of lobbyist spending. And a state in the throes of a budget crisis that has required drastic cuts in just about everything else still seems to have plenty for officials’ discretionary expenses.
Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who this year replaced the ethically challenged Glenn Richardson as speaker of the House, has to his credit been pushing for ethics reforms in the current legislative session.
Whether they adequately address the issue of political accountability is open to debate.
The Macon Telegraph reported earlier this week that special-interest largesse has actually increased this year as of the latest (March 31)reporting deadline: Lobbyists had spent more than $962,000 wining, dining and entertaining legislators and other officials, as opposed to $882,800 at the same time last year.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the state’s part-time lawmakers have racked up almost $3.6 million in per diem
expenses in just over two years, including seven — led by Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain — who collected more than $40,000 each in travel and other expenses.
It might well be that every dime of that $3.6 million was spent in the diligent service of Georgia citizens and taxpayers.
But how do we know? As the AJ-C notes, there is little or no independent oversight of a system by which some lawmakers more than double their legislative pay.
As for the cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers, it’s an old story that doesn’t get more entertaining with repetition: The often lavish wining and dining, the trips and expensive sports tickets buy nothing from the legislators but “access,” and these lush get-togethers with well-paid flacks for well-heeled interests serve a mostly “educational” function, etc., etc., etc.
“There’s no meal that’s ever influenced a legislative action on my part,” Ralston said. “… I’d just as soon have a sandwich back in Blue Ridge. (But) it’s part of the work day.”
Let’s have a chorus of “Sixteen Tons.”
Certainly strict disclosure laws and transparency, more than something like caps on what perks lawmakers can accept, are the key to good ethics policy. Ralston is right about that: Voters should know who got what from whom, and whether the votes were obviously bought and paid for.
But according to Common Cause Georgia, the ethics legislation now under consideration would actually weaken disclosure requirements for some lobbyist-paid trips. And it doesn’t address the per diem accountability issue at all.
Ethics talk is cheap, even if cocktails and filet mignon at the best Atlanta eateries aren’t.
Dusty Nix, for the editorial board