For the last eight weeks I have had the privilege of serving on the House Republican Caucus Ethics and Lobbying Task Force. Our task force is charged with examining the law in regard to ethics and lobbying legislation and comparing that law to that of other states and to the standards espoused by such groups as The Center for Public Integrity.
Rumors about the General Assembly abound. Thankfully, only a very small number of legislators actually behave badly. However, ethics laws are not passed for the good but to punish the bad apples that taint all of the rest. The basis of self government is public confidence. Even the slightest hint of impropriety or dishonesty is enough to place doubt in any citizen’s mind when it comes to a question of ethics and their elected officials. And rightly so, the recent news reports of the disgraceful conduct of certain elected officials point out various loopholes, secrecy, and perks of privilege.
Adding to the frustration of the average citizen is the fact that year after year little appears to be done about the misdeeds of which we read. Recently, when a frustrated citizen rightly and bravely leveled a complaint he was told that he had no right to do so because he does not live in said legislator’s district. The cry, “outrageous!” could be heard across the state.
Among the items our task force has looked at are current definitions and if they are adequate. For instance the legal definition of a lobbyist is someone who receives pay or other consideration to communicate with legislative or executive branch officials to influence legislative or administrative action. From this definition we have determined that a loophole exists when it comes to government lobbyists and we have made a proposal to fix this loophole.
In addition the task force has proposed the following:
Prohibit Lobbyist Appointments: We want to prohibit lobbyists from being appointed to state commissions, state boards, select committees, and state councils. These entities propose and opine on legislation. No person who is being paid to represent the interests of a client should be serving on a state commission or board pretending to be looking out for the interests of the taxpayer. Such positions should be reserved for citizens who are able to offer a more objective analysis of the issues.
The Reimbursed Expenses: The reimbursed expenses of Members of the General Assembly who use state funds to attend conferences or fact finding trips should be more easily accessible to the public by posting them on-line. This can be a hidden area of abuse.
The Revolving Door: Legislators should not be permitted to lobby the General Assembly or the administration for one year after leaving the Legislature. This models the ethical standards in place for members of the United States Congress. Similar statutes are currently in place in 27 states.
Increased Reporting Requirements for Statements of Interest: Legislators should be required to disclose a specific company as place of employment, its address and the type of income received over $200, including salaried employment and professional services. Legislators should also be required to list positions, including non-paid, held outside of state government. Such stipulations, which are modeled after federal guidelines, allow citizens to rest assured that outside income is not unduly influencing legislators’ judgment on the issues.
Prohibition of Contingency Fees: Lobbyists should be prohibited from receiving fees and bonuses based upon the successful passage or failure of particular legislation. In addition to being a national standard, 37 states also prohibit contingency fees in order to assuage improper influence by a lobbyist on a public official. The proposal includes a requirement for a signed statement by each client indicating that no contingency fees are paid.
Legislators Must Live in their District: In order to qualify to run for office, a candidate must have legal residence in the district which he or she is seeking to represent. This mirrors a proposal brought before Georgia’s General Assembly to require that candidates may not list their place of residence as a structure or building primarily used for commercial and business purposes.
Additional Campaign Financial Disclosures: Candidates should be required to provide an additional financial disclosure due at the beginning of early voting. Political Action Committees should also be prohibited from contributing financially to a candidate during early voting. This allows voters to more confidently discern a candidate’s funding sources prior to voting.
Governmental Ethics Commission: A Governmental Ethics Commission would provide the citizens with a mechanism to redress their government regarding grievances and questions of ethics such as but not limited to undue influence, full disclosure, and truth in campaigning. Thirty-one states have some sort of ethics commission and they have proved to be a great asset toward protecting the public trust.
House Republican Caucus Task Force on Ethics will continue to meet and address additional items as well as make recommendations on an ongoing basis throughout Session. I want to state that I welcome all public comments regarding our work. Your observations are very important in identifying how our government can be a better steward of the public trust.