The ‘zero’ at the center of the Capitol debate over ethics reform

Nothing stands between the Legislature and a very real attempt to alter the financial and personal relationships between state lawmakers and the lobbyists who schmooze them.

But “nothing” means something here.

Specifically, the absolute concept of zero now lies at the center of House-Senate negotiations that will determine whether a deal on ethics reform will be reached by the time the General Assembly adjourns on Thursday.

“I think it’s a number that Georgians can understand,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

At 3:45 p.m. Friday, the shirt-sleeved speaker sat in his office with Spiro Amburn, his chief of staff, and state Rep. Rich Golick, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

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Only seconds earlier, the trio had watched the Senate pass a gutted version of H.B. 142, the ethics measure Ralston’s chamber had passed a month earlier. When it left the House, the bill had what Ralston declared to be a total ban on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers. Zero.

Republican senators pointed out the many loopholes that would have allowed free dinners and booze to continue to flow, and said they closed them. But the Senate also tossed out Ralston’s gift ban – and replaced it with a $100 cap.

Yes, Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, admitted under questioning, lobbyists could buy a lawmaker a $100 breakfast, a $100 lunch, a $100 dinner, $100 tickets for an opera or a truck rally – and still be in compliance with the measure.

McKoon’s interrogator was Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who immediately said he would vote for the measure despite its flaws. “The perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” Fort said.

Ralston watched all of this, then invited a reporter to discuss what might happen in the next 96 hours. “If the Senate’s willing to negotiate in good faith, we can still get a deal done,” he said.

Let us push aside – just for a few paragraphs – the issue of loopholes.

Ditto with the fact that Ralston was more than slightly peeved that the Senate had waited until Friday rush hour to act on the most delicate bill on this year’s agenda. “I’m disappointed that this was not a higher priority to them,” Ralston said.

In any fight over what is – and what isn’t – good and moral behavior, moral high ground is essential. That’s what the coming few days will be about, and the House speaker knows it. “I think what both chambers have to ask themselves is, what really keeps the faith with the people of Georgia?” Ralston said.

For the last year, the House speaker has criticized the concept of a gift cap as “gimmicky.” GOP senators justified their version of ethics reform by pointing to a July primary question put to Republican voters. Eighty-seven percent endorsed a $100 gift cap.

Ralston pointed out that the question put to voters wasn’t multiple choice. “The people of Georgia weren’t given an option last summer on zero. They weren’t given an option on $50,” the speaker said. “I suspect I know what they would have done with zero.”

But is a total ban on gifts a deal killer? “I don’t know that anything’s a deal killer. They seem determined to want to take lobbyists’ money,” Ralston said of the Senate.

Now, as to loopholes. H.B. 142 originally would have exempted legislative caucuses from the largesse of lobbyists. Never mind that many caucuses have a single member.

But the Senate has fixed that loophole – and added another, “mother of all loopholes,” the speaker said.

It would allow lobbyists to pay for “admission, registration, travel, food, and lodging attributed to attending events, seminars or educational programs at locations within the United States.”

The speaker gave no mention to the ban on foreign travel – a dig at Ralston’s 2010 visit to Germany, with staff and family, to study high-speed rail.

Ralston focused on the word “events.” What’s an event? A golf outing is one. Dinner is another. And everything in between, he said.

“A cap that’s not a cap, and a ban that’s not a ban,” Ralston said, summarizing the Senate’s effort.

Let the negotiations begin.

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