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Ralston derails already

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POSTED: January 31, 2011 9:46 a.m.

Hope for wiser heads and wiser policies springs eternal in Georgia, and one of the few recent encouraging signs has been hearing top state elected leaders sounding like adults when they speak.
That doesn’t assure they’ll act or legislate that way, of course, but simply setting a grown-up tone for what often appears to be a pre-k General Assembly is heartening – in an “Omigosh, they’ve got some adult supervision!” sort of way.
The new governor, Nathan Deal, has made a number of public comments that are quite rational and don’t involve bear-baiting ... the donkey variety, of course. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has long come across that way even to those who disagree with some of his specific ideas.
And House Speaker David Ralston has often seemed like the wise, cool head – even granting that anybody would sound that way after taking over from Glenn Richardson, the deposed brat-boy and bully of the pre-k.
Unfortunately, sounding like an adult and role model depends almost entirely on actions matching words. Nobody raises children well, or runs a state to applause, by insisting upon “Do as I say, not as I do.”
That’s why citizen/taxpayers have every right to feel Ralston has not lived up to his own carefully crafted image. The reference, of course, is to the revelation that Ralston, along with his wife and two children, and his chief of staff, accompanied by his wife, took a $17,000 lobbyist-paid junket to Europe during last year’s Thanksgiving holiday – a timeframe of Nov. 21-27 or longer than any Georgian got off. Nobody else bought our turkey, either, or sent us to Germany and the Netherlands to eat it.
Given that Ralston’s big push last year was to shore up ethics in a government that had convinced citizens it didn’t have any, this discovery certainly doesn’t do either his image or effectiveness much good. It’s not fatal, necessarily. On our part, understanding humans are imperfect beings, a willingness to forgive and forget is present ... assuming similar won’t happen again. At least it doesn’t mean yet another top politician has been found to have not only feet but also other appendages made of clay.
The ethics law Ralston helped adopt last year wasn’t much – indeed, this newspaper dubbed it the “Better Than Nothing but Not by Much Ethics Act.” And, proving no good deed ever goes unpunished, this little jaunt came to light because one of the few new rules forced lobbyists to disclose more often and in fuller detail how they had most recently stroked – er, helped educate – the representatives of the people.
But … what was he thinking?
This was presented as an “economic development” trip paid for by a Washington-based high-speed rail consulting firm, Commonwealth Research Associates, to give Ralston a first-hand look and ride upon such transportation. The reason is transparent: Georgia and Tennessee have a $14 million federal grant to study putting a magnetic levitation (maglev) train route between Atlanta and Chattanooga, but neither state has yet provided the matching money for an environmental study. No money, no contract for a consulting company.
Whether such a train is a needed, advisable and workable investment – particularly in the current economy – is certainly debatable. That doesn’t mean rapid-transit is bad, and if Ralston had never before been on such a “bullet train,” he doubtless got a better idea of what this is all about. Of course, he might have gotten a similar, although much briefer and slower, ride at the test track of American Maglev Technology of Florida Inc. – in Powder Springs, Ga.
Also, questions regarding whether this can be operated without a permanent and eternal taxpayer subsidy are also very much worth considering – and have no lobbyist. Also, how can anything – even moving at a top speed of 180 mph – be considered “faster” when having to slow, stop, reaccelerate for stations at the Atlanta airport, downtown Atlanta, Cartersville, Dalton, Chattanooga airport and downtown Choo-Choo City?
But, most of all: With his family? Two-thirds of the guests, and $17,000 price, involved those not having a role in any future decision.
As Ralston explained: “I wanted to be with my family during Thanksgiving week and that was the only week I could go due to my schedule. I wanted to be with my wife and kids. I don’t apologize for that.”
Actually, he should. Few, if any, employers are going to send a worker to a convention at Disney World, a seminar in Las Vegas or even a business luncheon a block away and pay for their family to accompany them.
If Ralston doesn’t know how this looks and couldn’t anticipate how most of his constituents would view something like this, then he’s not in sync with the general mood of the day regarding both public and lobbyist expenditures.
Ralston is not wrong in believing high-speed train projects have economic development potential. They are worth considering – after the state has figured out to adequately fund k-12 education, higher education, health care, state parks, public safety and a few dozen other items really hurting for money.
Or, if this indeed needs rush consideration, then put new taxes or bonds to fund it on a ballot for the public’s decision. Georgians might well be inclined to approve of this after the lobbyists take all of them on a similar trip to Europe to experience what they could get.
Roughly 9 million people live in Georgia, making up all the family members of the possible 3 million or so voters. Based on the per-head costs of the Ralston entourage’s journey ($2,833), all the lobbyists would have to ante up to convince all the rest of us to get moving at high speed is $25.5 billion.

 

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