The ethics dilemma: How to get doing right, right

By Tom Baxter

It seems to be a matter of widespread agreement that the best thing about this year’s legislative session is the pace at which it’s clicking along. The General Assembly is on track to adjourn on the earliest date in years, which gives citizen legislators more time to make a living and unnecessary, often bad bills less time to sprout and grow.

So how has this beneficial improvement come to pass? It’s hard not to credit it at least in part to one of the most widely deplored deals in years: the arrangement by which former Senate majority leader Chip Rogers left the legislature to take a job with Georgia Public Broadcasting at a salary of $150,000 — more than the yearly salary of the governors of 40 states, including Georgia. A pretty penny, but it was deemed to be the price of removing the logjam in the state Senate, paving the way for the speedy passage of the hospital bed tax and a short session.

Though some might question its ethics, the Rogers deal and its effect on the legislative calendar have nothing to do directly with the House ethics bill introduced last week by Speaker David Ralston, or its more modest cousin, the $100 cap on gifts passed by the Senate in a resolution on the first day of the session. But it does show how difficult it can be sometimes to sort out good government from greasy government.

What, in the first place, is a lobbyist? Ralston’s plan has come under fire for broadening the definition considerably beyond the standard currently in effect – someone who spends more than 10 percent of their time or $1,000 of their money to influence legislation, which leaves a lot of wiggle room. Under his legislation, anybody who does more than talk to their local legislator about a bill comes under the requirement to pay a $300 fee and register as a lobbyist.

This sounds a lot like an opening bid, and Rep. Rich Golick has promised the bill will be amended this week to clarify it so the busloads of citizens who come downtown every week to lobby on one bill or another won’t have to pay such an outrageous fee, while the nefarious unregistered lobbyists who are concealing their connections, will.

But how do you sort those out? Any scheme based on the time you see the at the Capitol would miss most of the drop-in artists, there to do something for a client in a short time, and snag the most effective of the citizen-lobbyists volunteering their time to make a difference.

She had lived a long and full life when she died in December at the age of 88, but it’s a shame Rachel Fowler hasn’t been around to comment on the ethical gropings of the legislators this year.

The sharp-eyed secretary of some of the most powerful men in the state, Fowler became in her retirement years an especially shrewd advocate for the Garden Club of Georgia. She knew her way around the Capitol and could call on a network of Garden Clubers from across the state for support on issues from billboards to land fills.

Was she in the same category as the parents and children who come to the Capitol once a year to advocate on home-schooling issues, or other such groups? Obviously not. But was she then in the same category with the lobbyists for business interests, with whom she frequently did battle?  Under the definitions in the bill as currently written, she would be, but that doesn’t feel exactly right either. Ralston told the AJC his bill wasn’t trying to get at citizens who come to the Capitol “on a limited basis” (therein lies the rub)

“That’s not who we’re trying to get at. There are people out there. We see them every day on a myriad of issues.”

A veteran lobbyist once cautioned a younger colleagues to watch out for the “leaners” who show up toward the end of a session, so called because they would appear at the edge of a crowd of regulars and lean in to pick up what was being said. Are these the unregistered lobbyists Ralston was speaking of, or the increasing number of increasingly pesky citizen activists?

Meanwhile, rest assured the big-feed events like the Wild Hog Supper, along with dinners for entire committees, are exempted from the new restrictions. There’s even a provision which allow a lobbyist to buy a legislator dinner, provided the products are locally grown. If it sails, that could be a big boost for the locavore movement.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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