Ethics could take center stage at the General Assembly

When the Georgia General Assembly goes into session Jan. 14, the agenda is sure to include a lengthy discussion on ethics reform.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat with 38 years in the state house, has seen and heard the discussion before. No legislator in the current General Assembly has been there longer than him.

“There is no magic wand,” he said last week. “Knowing all I know about this issue — and over the years we have addressed ethics on many, many occasions — what we have not done is enforce ethics legislation.”

At the center of the reform push is Smyre’s Muscogee County delegation colleague, Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican.

McKoon has been advocating a $100 limit on what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers. McKoon also wants a consistent stream of revenue tied to the state budget to fund an ethics commission with enforcement power.

McKoon, an attorney starting his third year in the senate, said his strong support of ethics legislation is tied to public trust in elected officials.

He points to the failure of a transportation sales tax in nine of the state’s 12 regions as a prime example. (The tax passed in the Columbus region.)

“The main reason people gave for not supporting the T-SPLOST is they don’t have faith in elected officials and state government,” McKoon said. “When Republicans were elected, we promised competent government and honest government. We have done a good job in streamlining government. We still have a lot of work to do in restoring the credibility gap. Ethics legislation is an important start to that.”

Lobbyists spend a lot of money and time entertaining the 236 lawmakers during the session, which typically lasts about three to four months.

Last year, lobbyists spent $997,508 entertaining legislators and other state officials from Jan. 1 until the session wrapped up April 14, according to the Associated Press.

In 2010, lobbyists spent $1.13 million, and they spent $1.05 million in 2009.

Right now, state voters have gotten the attention of lawmakers when it comes to ethics reform.

In July, non-binding ethics-related questions were on the Democratic and Republican primary ballots.

The Republican question asked if voters approved setting a $100 limit on what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers; about 87 percent agreed.

The Democratic question was more vague, asking if voters approved any limit. It also received overwhelming support.Of the nearly 1.2 million Georgia voters who answered either question, about 82 percent agreed with limits of some kind.

Currently, lawmakers can expect gifts of any value as long as they are disclosed to the ethics commission by the lobbyist.

Trying to find the right limit and enforcing it will be tricky.

That is why Rep. Richard Smith, a Columbus Republican, said the new limit should be zero.“What does a $100 cap accomplish?” Smith asked. “Is that $100 a day? A $100 a week? A $100 a month? A $100 for the whole session?”

Depending on the wording of the legislation, a $100 cap could create many loopholes, Smith said. He offers the following example:

“Say a lobbyist wants to take me to a Braves game,” he said. “I can go sit in a skybox, go out to Morton’s and get a steak when the game is over. That’s going to cost $500 or more. Then, you just get more than one lobbyists to take you.”

There is a point to Smith’s example.

“My point is just do away with it,” Smith said. “If taking someone to Morton’s — where you can hardly walk out of there for less than $100 — is going to buy your vote, then someone can buy your vote with a $2 hot dog across the street.”

Smyre understands Smith’s argument well.

“There is some argument for nothing because of that example right there,” Smyre said.

Still, Smyre is undecided on what a spending limit on lawmakers should look like.

“At one point, I was where Rep. Smith is,” Smyre said. “What makes $100 so special? We have to get away from the emotion of the issue and look at what is realistic and practical.”

Rep. Carolyn Hugley, the Democratic whip, is practical when it comes to ethics reform, pointing out there is a wide split inside the Republican party on the issue.

“The difference is this is not one party against another party,” she said. “This is within the Republican party. The Republicans want to do an ethics bill, and whenever they decide exactly what they want to do, it will be done.”

McKoon said you could see something done early in the session.

“On some aspects of this, hopefully, you are going to see results right away,” McKoon said, stressing a gift limit could be imposed when the senate rules are adopted. “I am not saying we are, but we could adopt a rule that would include the imposition of a limit on the senate.”

The Republicans control the Georgia house, senate and governor’s office.

“At the end of the day, this is about personalities and it is about politics,” Hugley said. “In the past, it was Republicans versus Democrats. In this case, it’s one section of the party against its leadership.”