Georgia View: Let The Sunshine In
There is something about springtime in Georgia that makes you believe that anything is possible and that a new day may be just around the corner.
I personally believe that real and lasting change tends to occur incrementally, as opposed to sweepingly and fundamentally. After the stench of scandal enveloped our Gold Dome at the end of 2009, cries went out for sweeping change to Georgia ethics laws. However, the General Assembly session that followed was instead consumed by the most challenging state budget in decades, and those reforms did not rise to the top of the agenda.
Changes were made, with perhaps more to come. The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Act of 2010 replaces the Ethics in Government Act, and the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission replaces the State Ethics Commission. Good to his word, the new Georgia House Speaker, Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), is cracking the doors of state government a bit wider and attempting to let more sunshine in.
Some of the changes are incremental, while some are significant. Fines and fees for violations of the act have been roughly doubled. For the first time in Georgia history, there is a legal definition, relative to state government, for “conflict of interest” as well as “abuse of power.” If the bill is signed into law, “abuse of official power” will be codified to mean “threatening to use the powers or personnel of a state entity for personal purposes or coercion, retaliation or punishment.”
Lobbyists, who have largely been the focus of the cries of abuse, will be required to report twice as often, as well as paying a fee of $300 to register. The expanded transparency law now encompasses local as well as state officials.
In perhaps one of the greatest understatements of this debate, Speaker Ralston offered, “The best police force of public officials is the public.”
If this legislation delivers on its promise of greater transparency, particularly in terms of more information and campaign finance disclosures being made available more quickly and online, then educated voters will be in a better position to make informed decisions during election years.
Much discussion has followed about whether the law goes far enough. Perhaps it does not.
However, what did come out of the House had a unanimous and bipartisan vote of support from the House Judiciary Committee, including Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), the author of several bills calling for the more stringent reporting. A practical lawmaker knows it’s sometimes prudent to make those changes in a series of incremental steps.
This issue won’t vanish during an election year. More transparency and a more open government is almost always a continuing desire of voters. Here are some additional concrete steps to consider next year:
• Subject the General Assembly and executive branch to all aspects of the Open Records Act and particularly strengthen access and requirements for electronic communications, increasingly at the crux of how business is conducted during the session. This year’s bill does limit electronic communication initiated by lobbyists with legislators once either chamber is in session or during any committee or subcommittee meetings.
• Prohibit legislators from sponsoring legislation that directly impacts their industry or business. There are 235 other colleagues who can easily carry that same water, minus the “conflict of interest” bucket.
• Require the regular re-bidding, at least every two or three years, of any contracts for doing business with the state held by local or state elected officials. Bidding forces competition and pricing pressure, and until this economy rebounds, it should be required. The public has a right to know. Higher fines and even criminal prosecution for repeat offenders should help with compliance.
Conservatives often argue in favor of capital punishment by stating that “at least that offender can’t do that again.” Perhaps in this case if we make a capital case out of a few Capitol offenders, we might all see a good bit more sunshine coming in.