This week, the Legislature is finally expected to return its focus to ethics legislation. It is important that the Georgia electorate that angrily demanded ethics reform at the polls this past summer focus on this as well.
The last time Georgia passed major ethics reform legislation was in 2010, shortly after scandal had consumed the top tier of leadership in the Georgia House and rumor began to consume the rest of the legislature, painting all with a broad brush of complicit guilt. The legislation that passed looked tough on the surface. In reality, it added bureaucracy to an already ineffective system, allowing it to collapse under its own weight via lack of funding, staffing, and authority to actually police much of what was broken.
The 2010 legislation was championed by a study that ranked Georgia as one of the best states for ethics laws in the country. It was a clear example in preparing for a test instead of preparing for practical application, however. The study only looked at laws that were in place, and not how or if they could be enforced. When a related group dug deeper, Georgia was revealed to be the worst state in the nation.
Jim Walls, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor who now publishes the website Atlanta Unfiltered (and was the Georgia reporter who assisted in the report which ranked Georgia 50th) is now reporting that House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, in the days leading up to the House's release of its ethics reform proposal, is telling interested parties that he has a report that ranks Georgia 3rd, not 50th. It's just that, well, it appears to be a super-secret proposal that he can't show to anyone. Seriously.
Georgians should not be concerned if they're starting to sense a feeling of déjà vu. If the starting position of the House ethics chairman is that Georgia is third best in the nation with the morass of public corruption we incubate here, then there's little reason to believe that the process we are about to undertake is little more than a publicity stunt. Georgians must pay attention to this legislation throughout the process to ensure that accountability and enforceability are part of the final product.
Why must Georgians pay attention? Because of events like those that happened last year. During the 2012 session, leaders of the House and Senate insisted there was no ethics problem, despite growing and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Columbus Senator Josh McKoon was not only rebuffed on every attempt to introduce reform legislation, but spent most of the year as a pariah in exile.
In the literal last hours of the session however, after killing every attempt to make Georgia's ethics laws stronger, a House-Senate Conference Committee inserted provisions into a bill about fishing licensing procedures that would have shielded many complaints against legislators from public view and permanently sealed the records. That six-person conference committee included former Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour, who personally killed many of McKoon's efforts at reform in his committee only to agree to later accept a censure for his own transgressions, and House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson.
The language from leadership has been significantly different this session than last year's complete abdication and public embarrassment. McKoon, no longer in exile, was actually given a prominent committee chairmanship in that of Senate Judiciary. Speaker David Ralston, who chided GOP delegates at the state convention for siding with "media elites and liberal special interest groups," is now talking about a total gift ban from lobbyists, which is expected in a package to be released Tuesday. Clearly, the tone is better.
Tone, however, is not law. And thus, this process must be closely watched to see what is talked about during this 40 days is enforceable for the next weeks and years to come. We're going to watch this effort closely, and we will praise what is found to be good, but we will also note what is missing.
At the end of the day, the goals of this reform must remain clear. There must be independent accountability outside the influence of the legislature and executive branches, and there must be clear and easily accessible enforcement mechanisms. These two principles are much more important than any secret score the legislators want to use to tell us how honest our broken system is.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.