Whether you’re on the right or on the left, there appears to be a consensus about at least one thing when you talk about ethics reform in the Georgia General Assembly. Any meaningful effort to improve trust and integrity in our state elected representatives, and their relationship with lobbyists and other special interests, runs into a world of hurt at the office door of House Speaker David Ralston’s Gold Dome suite.
The Blue Ridge, Georgia, Republican has voiced opposition to a ballot question put to primary voters on July 31, asking whether they want their elected representatives to pass legislation limiting lobbyists influence to $100 a day during the legislature’s annual 40 day session. He called the non-binding cap referendum “a gimmick.”
“I think we have a good strong record on ethics in the House and I’m proud of that,” the Speaker told a group of Republican supporters in Cobb County, earlier this month.
The problem is, Ralston is one of the worst offenders – well, offenders may not be right because it’s all legal – in taking lobbyists’ money. In the three sessions since he was elected speaker, he accepted over $59,000 in gifts, including over $20,000 in food and drink, and a questionable $17,000 trip to Europe for his entire family, paid for by a lobbyist who was promoting high speed rail as part of the Transportation Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST). The latter shocked Georgia Republicans so much, it is often pointed to as one of the reasons the referendum, also on next Tuesday’s ballot, is doomed to fail in most regions of the state.
“That is what I call uncontrolled lobbying,” said Nolen Cox, GOP chair in Lowndes County. Cox is also part of the Georgia Conservatives in Action, one of the groups participating in the bipartisan Ethics Express, a community of progressive and conservative organizations touring the state in support of Question 2 on both parties’ primary ballots.
“If you’re the party in charge, you have to lead. When we were the minority party, and the Democrats were in charge, we were the party pushing for ethics reform,” State Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Waycross) told Prose and Thorn, Thursday.
“Something happens when you get into power,” he said of the reluctant Georgia House leadership, “especially if you’ve been there awhile. You begin to think you’re important.”
The good news for Spencer and other proponents of ethics reform, is that Ralston does not seem to hold sway on the issue, outside the Gold Dome. At the Georgia GOP convention in May, the Speaker sought to hold the line against the bipartisan movement, accusing the Republicans involved in the issue of trying to divide the party, by aligning themselves “media elites and liberal special interest groups.”
“There are those who would sow the seeds of dissension and discord in order to advance a self-absorbed agenda that’s not consistent with the best interests of our party,” he told the delegates. But despite his warning, “as for me and the people’s House of this state, we are going to stand united, working hard, standing Republican shoulder to Republican shoulder,” the convention delegates shrugged and agreed to put the ethic question on the primary ballot by acclimation.
Where Ralston sees division, though, other organizations see unity, between – of all people – Tea Partiers and Democrats. “Here, in our county, the Democrats and the Republicans are on the same page on many, many issues,” said Diane Cox, co-founder of the Valdosta Tea Party, an affiliate of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, one of the groups involved in the Ethics Express. “We want transparency in government, and we are on good terms.”
Spencer, who traveled with the Ethics Express to stops in Waycross and Brunswick, Georgia, was the first of only two incumbent Republicans to sign the group’s Lobbyist Gift Cap Campaign Pledge, a vow by State Assembly candidates to push for the cap in the upcoming, 2013 session of the legislature.
“Once the people overwhelmingly pass this question,” he said at the Ethics Express’ Brunswick stop, “there will be a mandate for those pushing this ethics reform, to send to House and Senate leadership, that this is what the people expect – good government. That’s something both sides of the aisle can agree on.”
Diane Cox agrees. “That is our ultimate goal,” she said.