Just days ago, a proposal by state Rep. Tommy Smith, R-Nicholls, for some genuine ethics reform in Georgia sputtered and died with scarcely a whimper. The response he got (such as it was) sounded something like the awkward throat-clearing when Eddie Murphy’s grubby panhandler in “Trading Places” gets arrested in a rich white men’s social club and asks, “Is there a lawyer in the house?”
Now Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has picked up the effort again, with a companion bill to Smith’s that would limit lobbyist spending on legislators. It’s the second time this week that a member of the Columbus delegation has taken leadership on an important issue, and both deserve bipartisan, even unanimous, support.
McKoon’s legislation -- Senate Bill 391 -- would cap lobbyist spending on a legislator for a single occasion at $100, and out-of-town travel, meals and accommodations at $750.
As we noted in a previous editorial on Williams’ bill, HB 798, these are hardly bread-and-water restrictions. At $100 and $750 per occasion, lobbyists can still lavish some pretty luxurious perks on our elected officials. But it’s the fact that as of now there is no limit on special-interest largess that leaves a sour taste in the mouths of hard-working, tax-paying citizens, who have good reason to wonder just whose interests lawmakers really represent.
According to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, cited in a letter from conservative organizations supporting the legislation, public support for tougher ethics laws is overwhelming -- 82 percent of Georgians who identify themselves as Republicans, and 72 percent overall.
Yet some House leaders have been resistant to the idea of spending caps, despite the obvious concerns of their own constituents. Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has consistently argued that full disclosure of lobbyist spending is sufficient.
McKoon disagrees, and he’s absolutely right. He notes that Georgia is now one of only three states with no limits on gifts to legislators: “The bottom line is as long as we sign off on this unlimited giving, then the message that we send is that we’re OK with that; we sanction it, and I think that’s a bad message to send to the public.”
The “message” isn’t helped by the fact that in the four years since the onset of the Great Recession, which hit Georgia especially hard, lobbyist greasing of the political skids has increased every year. When private interests that schmooze lawmakers are spending more and more even as the people who elect those lawmakers are having to get by on less, something is seriously amiss.
Georgians, like other Americans, need the best legislature they can elect, not the best one money can buy. We all know the timeworn politicians’ argument that lobbyist money buys only “access” -- it doesn’t buy (perish the thought) favorable legislative treatment.
What voters aren’t buying is that tired old lie.