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Lets push for better ethics in state

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POSTED: March 23, 2011 2:53 p.m.

In the same sense that good fences make for good neighbors, solid, comprehensive ethics and transparency rules help ensure good governance by our elected officials.
With the legislative session nearing an end, it’s clear that this won’t be the year that Georgia finally fills the remaining big gaps in these areas. Yet there’s reason to be hopeful that government ethics and openness will be more fully addressed in 2012. Taxpayers should keep up the pressure to make that happen.
One encouraging sign came when Georgia Senate Ethics Committee Chairman John Crosby said that he’s naming a subcommittee that will conduct hearings later this year on suggested reforms. Given the reluctance of many lawmakers to support more-stringent requirements, these hearings will let Georgians make their views known. Senators should listen and take notes.
Another reason to think good changes may come to Georgians who wait a year is the request by Attorney General Sam Olens for hearings this summer to discuss a proposed rewrite of the state’s open records, or sunshine, laws. This important issue deserves a thoughtful debate that’s followed by a substantial legislative overhaul.
Olens should be commended for his drive to strengthen and make plain the intent of the laws supported by national Sunshine Week, which just ended. It’s a complex issue, with widely varying views of just what openness should mean when it comes to government records. Taking the rest of this year to gather input should increase the chances of getting passed in 2012 a better law that improves access to information and toughens penalties for willful refusal to comply.
Given the behavior we’ve seen from some elected leaders lately, supporters of the status quo on ethics have a tough argument to make for keeping things the way they are.
In 2010, the Georgia General Assembly did improve a bit the laws governing lobbyist behavior. It’s good law, for example, that lobbyists now have to report gifts poured out to elected leaders every two weeks while the Legislature is in session. Disclosure is indeed good. But it’s not enough.
Given the throngs of red-badged lobbyists who crowd Capitol hallways, it’s easy to see why stronger limits are needed to help keep their influence in check. Some of the freebies granted to the peoples’ servants are eyebrow-raising, or eye-popping, in terms of the money spent to gain the ear of a legislator.
At the top of the gift list is the $17,000 lavished upon House Speaker David Ralston, his family and a staff member in November. The money paid for a trip to Europe to study high-speed trains. The travel mission was the gift of lobbyists backing a fast rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. To say Ralston’s acceptance of this Thanksgiving week journey was ill-advised is an understatement.
The trip was rightly criticized by advocates for good government. Given Georgia’s lukewarm-at-best attitude toward passenger rail, such skepticism is fully deserved. If Speaker Ralston wanted to see high-speed trains at work, he should have bought his own discount plane ticket to Washington and booked passage aboard Amtrak’s Acela, which maxes out at 150 mph on the run to Boston. That, and a little imagination, would have given him an approximation of the 180-mph trip his group made overseas.
Ralston’s lapse in judgment looks a lot better against former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s sorry decision to, on his last full day in office, grant himself several licenses to handle insurance matters. No one would have cared had he bothered to take the required classes or licensing tests.
Oxendine’s brazen use of official power for personal benefit did rightly spur lawmakers to start nailing shut the regulatory gate that allowed him to waive requirements for himself. Good for them.
It’s this sort of behavior that shows the need for stronger ethics rules. Reasonable measures, such as capping transfers from one campaign fund to others and putting a ceiling on the value of lobbyist gifts, are still needed.
Lawmakers should reread the membership list of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform before smugly deciding that last year’s law boosting disclosures settles the issue for now. When groups as varied as the League of Women Voters of Georgia and the Georgia Tea Party Patriots combine to push for enhanced ethics measures, it’s right to believe the issue may be a long way from done.
The grass-roots push should continue until legislators feel compelled to seriously revisit these matters next year.

 

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