Delete“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”
During the recently-completed legislative session, one of the hottest topics discussed was ethics. With the passage of HB 142 and HB 143 on the last day of the session, ethics reform, or at least the beginning of such, was finally achieved.
Although ethics reform has been discussed for many years, many feel it was brought to the forefront when news of a $17,000 lobbyist-paid trip to Europe in 2010 for House Speaker David Ralston became public.
During the 2012 session, Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) introduced SB 391 that would have imposed a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts. Although the bill did not pass, groups such as the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Common Cause Georgia and Georgia Conservatives in Action supported the intent and rallied behind the proposal.
Questions on whether Georgia should limit gifts from lobbyists to legislators were placed on both the Democratic and Republican ballots during the 2012 Georgia primaries.
Seventy-three percent of Democratic voters expressed support for a limitation of unlimited gifts while 87 percent of Republican voters expressed support for a more specific $100 gift cap.
As a result of this overwhelming response, ethics reform moved to the forefront of issues during this year’s session.
In fact, the state Senate adopted a $100 gift limit as part of their self-governing rules during the first day of the session. Although this limit went into effect immediately (before lunch on the first day) and was adhered to by Senate members throughout the session, HBs 142 and 143, which apply to both the House and Senate as well as local elected officials in Georgia, did not pass until the last day.
The onerous process involved in producing the bills led one senator to refer to them as “the good, the bad and the ugly.” His explanation of this analogy was that, while there were good parts and bad parts to the bills, the ugly part was the fact that House and Senate conferees did not reach a final compromise until 3 a.m. of the final day.
Nevertheless, a compromise was reached, the bills did pass and, upon the expected signing by Gov. Nathan Deal, ethics reform will become law.
HB 142, which deals primarily with limitations on what gifts lobbyists may give to public officers, proved to be the most contentious of the two bills. Highlights of the bill are a limit of $75 on expenditures for food, beverages and other items, and a total ban on the practice of lobbyists providing public officers with tickets to athletic, musical or other entertainment events, regardless of the cost involved.
While lobbyists may still pay domestic travel costs for a public officer and necessary staff attending a meeting or conference directly related to the official duties of that public officer, reimbursement for international travel is now prohibited.
Perhaps the most difficult compromise to this bill dealt with the requirements for who must register as a lobbyist. Under the definition of a “lobbyist” in HB 142, anyone who receives or anticipates receiving more that $250 per calendar year in compensation or reimbursement of expenses specifically for promoting or opposing legislation by the General Assembly must now register as a lobbyist.
The other ethics bill, HB 143, primarily deals with candidates for local offices. Saddled with the burden of electronically filing disclosure reports, even if they raised or spent no money whatsoever on a campaign, local candidates are now allowed by HB 143 to file notice that they do not intend to accept or spend more than $2,500, thus exempting them from reporting requirements.
HB 143 also allows local candidates to file disclosure reports with the county election superintendent or the municipal clerk.
Although ethics reform is a work in progress and these two bills are far from perfect, they do make improvements to the process.
However, just as we have learned that you can’t legislate morality, we know that you can’t make someone be ethical — crooks will be crooks.
But HBs 142 and 143 raise the bar a little higher and, while they may not say what is right to do, at least they do say what you have a right to do.
Sen. Buddy Carter can be reached at 421-B State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334. His Capitol office number is (404) 656-5109. You can connect with him on Facebook at Facebook.com/buddycarterga or follow him on Twitter @Buddy_Carter.