So why is Question Two for ethics reform important? The answer may be boiled down into four words: integrity matters; trust matters.
Regardless of your political ideology, you likely agree that at every level government is broken. It is more difficult than ever for elected officials to take on the big issues that demand solutions. From a troubled economy to an infrastructure in need of repair to a system of public education that everyone agrees should be performing at a much higher level, we have significant problems that government should play a role in addressing. So why doesn't it?
Last week Governor Deal announced that he would end the toll on Georgia 400 by the end of next year. As part of the statement announcing the end of the toll he said, "There are no easy answers, no secret pots of money, but it is imperative that governments build the trust of their people."
I agree with Governor Deal wholeheartedly. The number one priority for elected officials should be the enactment of policies that build the trust of the people we represent.
The continuing failure to acknowledge and address this issue has had a paralyzing effect on state government. Trust is the currency of governance--it is the oil that allows the machinery of government to run. Without it, government is powerless to grapple with the issues of our day.
So when those who oppose attempts to even discuss comprehensive ethics reform dismiss such efforts as "not being a priority" for state government, they ignore this central fact--we must restore trust if we are to tackle the challenges that face our state.
I campaigned on this issue in 2010 and after being elected I stood with a bipartisan coalition, confident we would enact comprehensive ethics reform. However, after two legislative sessions we were unable to get a single committee hearing to discuss this subject. It would have been easy to give up, throw our hands in the air, rail at those who opposed discussion of this issue and move on to other matters. But the problem is when you become convicted about the absolute necessity of change, walking away is not an option.
So I asked what could we do to extend a discussion of this issue and get it to the people of Georgia to have their opportunity to speak on this issue. And so the Ethics Alliance developed a pledge which I was honored to be the first legislator to sign, committing myself to this issue in 2013. We started slowly with fewer than a dozen willing to sign. But I am proud to say today over 130 candidates for the General Assembly have signed the pledge and among their number include much of the leadership of our State Senate. With the momentum beginning to shift, the next step was to appeal to the Republican and Democratic Parties to place a question on their primary ballots to let voters give their answer to the question of the practice of unlimited giving by lobbyists to the members of our state legislature. To their credit, the Executive Committees of both parties have put this question to their voters. You now have an historic opportunity to weigh in on this issue.
Let me be clear on this point, a limit on lobbyist giving is a part of comprehensive ethics reform, not the whole solution. It is however the clearest symbol of what is wrong with our state's ethics law. The current system that allows millions of dollars in gifts to be showered on state legislators in a display that has become significantly more extravagant year after year is indefensible and it must end.
Georgia is one of 3 states in the entire country that has no law limiting or regulating lobbyist gifts to legislators. The size of the gifts are exploding--in 2008 it was at $1.4 million and last year it was over $1.8 million, an increase of 28 percent in 3 years! That is over $8,000 spent per year on every member of the state legislature. Is it any wonder confidence in state government appears to be at an all time low?
The good news is you have an opportunity to send a clear message to the legislature that you want a gift limit by voting Yes on Question Two.
The goal of passing comprehensive ethics reform is ambitious. It will take everyone pulling together to succeed. One of my favorite George Washington quotes that I learned from a speech Bo Callaway gave is, "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God." It is time to raise that standard--the standard that says your government is not for sale--the standard that says we are going to demand better from our elected officials--the standard that says Georgia will be a leader, not a follower, when it comes to ethics in government. So I urge all of you to give us the courage to do what is right by voting Yes for Ethics because integrity matters and trust matters.
Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, represents Georgia Senate District 29 and is a member of the Senate Ethics Committee; www.senate.ga.gov.