By Michael Mumper
It’s rare in today’s politically divisive environment to find an issue so many people agree on. But ethics reform in Georgia, and the lack thereof, is providing just that platform.
Based partly on the observation that Georgia is one of three states without limits on lobbyist gifts (see chart below) – and a recent study sponsored by a consortium led by the Center for Public Integrity that gives Georgia the lowest ranking of all 50 states – Georgia has garnered considerable negative statewide and national attention.
Rather than re-hash, let’s accumulate what we know about this issue
This issue is getting so much press on all media, I don’t know how much value AtlCrossroads would add in re-hashing pieces of what’s already known in 500 words or less. But it may be useful to have a collection of information in one place that people can visit in order to learn more. That’s what this compilation will try to accomplish.
The Problem: Limited limits
Jay Bookman sums it up nicely. Among the most glaring, simple-to-understand metrics, Georgia is one of just three states with no limits on lobbyist gifts to legislators.
Adding huge fuel to the fire, this week’s release of the Center for Public Integrity study lists Georgia 50th — dead last — in transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms. Once into the CPI link above, click on “Georgia” in the second paragraph for a comprehensive grade-by-grade breakdown of our state on subjects like Legislative Accountability, Political Financing, Lobbying Disclosure, Ethics Enforcement Agencies, State Pension Fund Management, and Public Access to Information.
The CPI study resulted in a hailstorm of statewide and national news. Here is a sample of national news articles that talked about the study and Georgia’s ranking.
New York Times: where Georgia is “at the bottom of the heap” (if the link doesn’t result in the story popping up, do a google search on “NY Times state’s report card”).
Business Week: “clearly violating state ethics laws”
Christian Science Monitor: “despite many antigraft laws…money finds a way to flow around those laws.”
Comcast: “where corruption can thrive”
Public support for ethics reform
According to a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution poll, and also 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.
Two current ethics bills that have been “put on hold”
It’s not that some legislators haven’t tried to supplement Georgia’s ethics oversight. House Bill 1105 and Senate Bill 391 are two bills put forward this year to institute additional ethics reform. However, both bills have stalled in their respective chamber’s Rules Committee with virtually no chance of passing before legislators adjourn until 2013. Here is an excellent breakdown of the House and Senate’s ethics bills. All bills pass through the Rules Committees, and the Rules Committee are sometimes used to stall undesirable bills. The Senate Rules Committee is chaired by Don Balfour, R-Snellville. The House Rules Committee is chaired by John Meadows, R-Calhoun.
Journalists and Bloggers for ethics reform
A large number of legislative followers have published strong arguments for ethics reform. Here is a sample. This is not your average partisan-based list of ranters. Rather this list covers a spectrum of the Georgian liberal/conservative spectrum. Some of these were written before the CPI study, some after.
Jay Bookman: http://bit.ly/GBld8a @jaybookmanajc
Kyle Wingfield: http://bit.ly/GBlsQH @kwingfieldajc
Dick Yarbrough: http://bit.ly/GAfZMy @dickyarbrough
Peach Pundit: http://bit.ly/GRuIAj @peachpundit
Georgia Politics Unfiltered: http://bit.ly/GHpvj9 @gaunfiltered
Organizations for Ethics Reform:
Again, a unique combination of organizations across the conservative/liberal spectrum.
Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform (consisting of Common Cause, Georgia Tea Party, League of Women Voters of Georgia , and Georgia Watch): http://bit.ly/GIuASZ
Other organizations and individuals listed by Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform: http://bit.ly/GGUJ5E
Georgia Newspapers Weigh In
Each of these prominent Georgia papers has written editorials calling for ethics reform. No major Georgia paper (that I’ve found) argued against ethics reform. (Though admittedly that would be a tough sell.)
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: http://bit.ly/GHdGpv @ledgerenquirer
Athens Banner-Herald: http://bit.ly/GH5W6s @onlineathens
Augusta Chronicle: http://bit.ly/GNbjVA @AUG_Chronicle
Savannah Morning News: http://bit.ly/GRrPPL @SavannahNow
Marietta Daily Journal: http://bit.ly/GOFvzq @mdjonline
Coweta County Times-Herald: http://bit.ly/GFCVb0 @TimesHerald
Not everyone agrees with the validity of the CPI study, nor that further ethics reform is needed right now.
Joe Wilkinson, Georgia House Ethics Committee Chair, said to Dick Yarbrough in Marietta Daily Journal Online: “I challenged Common Cause three years ago to bring me the names of three legislators who had been ‘bought’ by lobbyists. They couldn’t do it. So I asked them for one name. They couldn’t do that, either. If someone can provide me a shred of evidence of wrongdoing, I will leap into action and I will do so with a vigor that would make the members of the Senate Watergate Committee blush.”
And to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Wilkinson says “We have worked very closely with [Center for Public Integrity] over the years, followed their advice,” he said. “The problem is not CPI. The problem is that it was Jim Walls [author of the Georgia portion of the report].”
Rick Thompson, a former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission, told the AJC that the report was “biased and disappointing. All you have to do is read some of these opinions and how they’re answered to see there’s a whole lot of room to inject your opinion in.”
Thompson also told WABE “With the high level of transparency that is required by individuals running for office, individuals that are in office and individuals lobbying, I believe that the information is out there and it helps thwart the possibility of corruption.”
As to the criticism that the state ethics committee has had their audit staff lowered from six to one over the last several years, which limits the ability to review ethics complaints, Thompson added, “At one time we had numerous auditors, but that was before everything went electronically filed. [Now] all the auditing is automatically done. You don’t need that many people.”
Glaringly, Thompson points out that in 2009, under somewhat different criteria, the Center for Public Integrity had Georgia finish 6th among the 50 states. To be fair, did we really drop 44 places in two years? I could not quickly find this report online. Thompson himself believes Georgia is in the top 10 states for ethics oversight.
If you are someone who likes to contact a Senator or State Representative that holds some sway over these matters, in addition to your own, above is a list of these representatives.
See Michael Mumper’s bio in the About Us section above.