Is ethics reform in Georgia the key to common ground?

“In our system of government, frequently, when people ban together, people triumph over politics as usual.”
– Regina Quick, Republican candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives, Athens, Georgia

People coming together for good government may not be anything new, but in today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere, it may be the only common ground left, for which people on either side of the aisle are willing to stand as one. Just because we can’t seem to agree on everything, doesn’t mean we can’t agree on anything.

In traveling to 14 cities around Georgia in four days last week, the Ethics Express bus tour sought to drive home that point by playing up the fact that over 130 Democratic and Republican candidates in Tuesday’s state district primaries, have agreed that, if elected, they will push for ethics reform legislation in the upcoming, 2013 session. Specifically, they will ask that a $100 cap be placed on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators, including meals, sporting event tickets, resort stays, and more.

Those who spoke at the Ethics Express stops were urging voters to approve a non-binding referendum, Question 2, on the July 31 ballot, which voices citizens’ support for such legislation.

The Ethics Express at its last stop in Athens, Georgia, July 27, 2012. Pictured, left to right: Pam Davidson, candidate, Georgia Public Service Commission, State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), William Perry of Common Cause Georgia, Elizabeth Poythress of Georgia League of Women Voters, Regina Quick, Republican candidate, HD-117, Spencer Frye, Democratic candidate, HD-118.

William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, the voter advocacy group that joined with concerned legislators and other partners in taking the lead on ethics reform, and helped organize the bus tour, wanted to make certain that the media in attendance at the stops were given press packets, “in both red and blue, to show our true bipartisanship.”

“We’re going to quibble over some details here and there, but I think, in the end, everybody wants this,” said Spencer Frye, a Democratic State House candidate, and signer of the Lobbyist Gift Cap Pledge, who showed up at the stop in Athens, on Friday.

“It’s important to see that this is a common battle,” added Frye, “No matter what your political affiliation, no matter what how you believe your taxes should work, no matter how you believe your economy should work, or whether you believe in [government] helping the poor or not, there’s a lot of people who do believe in ethics.”

The fact that many partners, from all along the political spectrum, have made this their common cause, pleased many of those who attended stops along the Ethics Express tour. “I like the fact that many groups are coming together,” said Valdosta Tea Party Co-Founder, Diane Cox, in her hometown, on Thursday. “I like to see people who can agree on issues, like corruption in government. That needs to be addressed. We’re just people, and we want good government.”

Despite House Speaker David Ralston’s (R-Blue Ridge) opposition to the pledge and the lobbyist cap, Democrat Frye says he is hopeful that, if the referendum passes, and enough of the pledge’s signers get elected, it will open up a dialogue, and they can work together. “There can potentially be a groundswell of support,” he said.

“If this will help the citizens of Georgia have a greater trust in their elected officials,” he told the crowd gathered at the steps of Athens City Hall, Friday evening, “then this is what we all must do.”

Quick, agreed that without trust, nothing the Georgia General Assembly does will satisfy voters, because none of the issues that a candidate runs on will get a fair shake. “Until we get ethics reform,” she said, “there will only be the same cycle of winners and losers – the losers being the average citizens, who aren’t paying the legislators, and the winners being those who are [paying].”

None of the issues that Georgians face, whether wedge or plane, can be solved in the current political atmosphere. The bipartisan opposition to the regional transportation tax, or T-SPLOST, based partly on the allegedly questionable lobbying practices by those who build roads and rail, is a direct result of that mistrust. The Sierra Club, state Tea Party groups and the NAACP have all come down against it. There is no doubt that something needs to be done to fix our transportation problems, but under the weight of Georgians’ lost faith in their legislators, any potentially meaningful action in the Capitol collapses, no matter what the issue.

If the bipartisan reaction to this Tuesday’s ethics question and the T-SPLOST are any indication, we may be at the dawn of creating a new paradigm for consensus in Georgia, and perhaps the country, where legislators set aside the rhetoric of division and look for common ground. (I know. Don’t hold my breath.)

Like Spencer Frye said, demanding those who signed the pledge to stand and be counted, “Come on guys. Let’s get it together.”


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