The Macon Telegraph says, "The idea of adopting a weak ethics bill for public officials is akin to being a little bit pregnant."
There's still time to fix the weakened ethics bill
The idea of adopting a weak ethics bill for public officials is akin to being a little bit pregnant. It's an improbable state of being with limited results. You're pregnant or you are not; you're bound by strong ethical rules - or you're not.
Good rules governing what are ethical standards have been proposed for three years now by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
But it is an eviscerated ethics bill that passed the House of Representatives last week and now rests in the Senate Ethics Committee with only a little more than a week to go before the legislative session ends. In that time the committee's members have a real chance to fix the weakened bill, to make it what its sponsors intended - a reform with measurable guidelines so legislators know what is considered ethical conduct and what is not, and how violations will be handled.
Two provisions in the original bill that were eliminated or weakened in the House are important for the committee to restore. The first legislated a $50 limit on any "gift" lawmakers would be able to accept from lobbyists. The dollar limit would apply to everything from NASCAR event tickets - recently gifted to legislative leaders by a lobbyist - to evening meals out on the town.
Opponents to the measure said the dollar limit was too low, that an average meal in Atlanta costs $65, so they removed it. We won't comment on why $10 lunches don't provide the same degree of access to legislators by lobbyists as the more commonly proffered wine-and-dine evening meals of $65 plus, but we can endorse a suggestion from the Georgia Public Interest Research Group for a substitute bill.
To allow legislators not to have to worry about a $65 meal or two throughout the year, a compromise mandate could be to replace the dollar limit per gift to an aggregate cap for the year. For example, an annual limit of $500 (or other arbitrary number), should be low enough to discourage abuse but high enough to pass the low threshold of self-restraint some legislators seem to have.
The other provision that needs inclusion in a revamped ethics bill would give the State Ethics Commission the authority to rule over conflict-of-interest cases. Those issues now must be sent through the Attorney General's office, where the breadth and number of other kinds of cases it handles does not allow for quick response to conflict complaints. And no one who followed the saga and indictment of Sen. Charles Walker of Augusta can doubt there is immediate oversight needed.
The ethics committee, which includes Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, has little time and lots of work to do to make the ethics bill a meaningful document - and then to sell it to reluctant legislators who will have to explain to voters why they think a little ethics is good enough.