Speaker’s Bill would turn his $17K trip to Europe into a $13K trip – that’s not a gimmick?

House Speaker David Ralston talks about his ethics reform bills Thursday at the Capitol in Atlanta. Photo by: Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com

I get accused of not praising the steps the House Leadership has taken toward ethics reform. While I have praised them for offering to restore the rulemaking authority for what use to be known as the State Ethics Commission, requiring disclosure of pre-session campaign contributions, and relieving local elected officials who do not raise any campaign funds of over-burdensome disclosure reporting, such praise falls on deaf ears.

I’m not surprised – such praise likely gets drowned out by the shock-induced noise from those who expected real reform when the Speaker promised a “full ban“. If you actually read all of HB 142 and 143 (not the spin summary produced by leadership), you have to ask, how can they expect praise?  In HB 142, they offer a bill that would still allow most of the Speaker’s $17,000 trip to Europe to remain a possibility. In case you forgot, in November 2010, the Speaker, his wife and kids, his Chief of Staff and his Chief of Staff’s wife went of a $17,000 lobbyist funded junket to Europe to see the impacts of high-speed rail on communities in Germany and the Netherlands (and no legislation, or even a report on the findings of this trip has ever emerged). That trip outraged many (including members of the Speaker’s own caucus, though they will never admit it publically), and served as the inspiration for calls to end Georgia’s status as one of only three states in the nation that allows for completely unlimited spending by lobbyists on gifts to legislators.

The Speaker speaks highly of his bill. And to his credit, it does come down harsh on spending on individual legislators by instituting a lobbyist gift ban on the day-to-day peddling of lobbyist influence. Yet it falls short because of the exceptions it would allow for big ticket items. Deep pocketed lobbyists need only to invite a subcommittee out for dinner or Falcons game, and the ban is lifted. Need a speaker for a convention on Sea Island? Invite a legislator to be the keynote and they can bring their family and their staff for an all expense paid trip. Does that sound like what 1.2 million voters wanted when they voted for limiting such gifts this summer? I think not.

As a case study, let’s examine the Speaker’s junket.  His bill supposedly shuts down trips to Europe by not allowing lobbyists to pay for airfare for public officers, spouses or staff members.  But hey, with almost $403,000 cash on hand in your campaign account, as Speaker Ralston currently has, what’s a little airfare?

So airfare for three people is out, but in are such unlimited expenses as ground transportation, accommodations, food and beverage for all parties on the trip (with the exception of the public officer’s spouse, only the spouse’s food and beverage can be paid for, remember, this is tough reform). A quick search on Delta.com shows a round trip from Atlanta to Frankfurt during Thanksgiving week is $1.265.10 (remember, you wouldn’t want the Speaker to be away from his family during Thanksgiving).

Under the Speaker’s bill, his lobbyist couldn’t pay for the Speaker’s airfare, or that of his wife or his Chief of Staff. But, the lobbyist could still fund the cost of airfare for both kids, and the Chief of Staff’s wife. So from Chris Brady’s lobbyist disclosure report totaling $17,279.97 for the Speaker’s trip, let’s subtract $1,265.10 x 3, or $3,795.30 from the total (because we now are applying the Speaker’s “gift ban” legislation to this trip). Given the bill still allows Mr. Brady to pay for the Speaker’s children’s airfare, as well as his Chief of Staff’s wife’s airfare, as well as everyone’s train tickets, accommodations and food and beverages during the junket, this tough legislation has turned that $17,279.97 lobbyist gift into a $13,484.67 gift. All hail ethics reform!

I started out my job with Common Cause Georgia two years ago as an optimist. I’m still optimistic, but have learned that we fight for ethics reform by feet and inches instead of yards and miles. So, I suppose that a “gift ban” that prevents lobbyists from paying for transcontinental flights might be considered a start. But we deserve better. And surely the 1.2 million Georgia voters who supported limiting lobbyist gifts this summer expected more than what HB 142 offers.

This is why Common Cause Georgia has tracked the lobbyist paid travel expenditures of members of the legislature during 2012. This weekend, we sent a letter to every member of the House detailing our findings. The result – in 2012, lobbyists only paid for 44 House members to travel to conferences or trips for other “official duties”. The average cost for these 44 members was $1,337.14.  If you averaged that for all House members, it totals about $300 per member.  So why would the Speaker allow for lobbyist paid travel to remain completely unlimited when there is no reason to do so? Could a trip to Europe on the Queen Mary II be planned? Probably not, but why leave open the possibility? We’re asking the House leadership to amend their bill and set reasonable limits on the unlimited lobbyist spending the bill currently allows. See a copy of the letter we have send them here.

Common Cause Georgia is calling on Speaker Ralston and House members to amend this “gift ban” bill, as well as HB 143, the Speaker’s campaign finance bill, so that the bills truly reflect real reform:

  1. Cap “lobbying expenditures” for groups of legislators to $100 per legislator per day.
  2. Cap travel related expenses for “official duties” to $750 and allow for approval exceeding this amount in advance by a joint committee.
  3. Prevent staff and family members of legislators from accepting “expenditures” and prevent family members from accepting certain “lobbyist expenditures”.
  4. Expand the purpose the of expenditure listing on lobbyist reports to increase transparency and reflect the purpose of the meeting.
  5. Prevent lobbyists from paying secondary market value for tickets while the legislator reimburses the lobbyist for only face value.
  6. Amend the proposed section that removes lobbyist reporting requirements for state government employees to require reporting only if lobbying expenditures are made.
  7. Exempt those who do not receive compensation for lobbying and do not make “lobbying expenditures” from filing reports.
  8. Make the law effective upon the Governor’s signature.

HB 143

  1. Require local filing officers to electronically transmit all disclosure reports to the Campaign Finance Commission within 30 days of receipt.
  2. Require local filing officers to electronically transmit the list of candidates who provide written notice that they do not intend to collect contributions or make expenditures exceeding $2500 to the commission for posting on the commission website.
  3. Keep enforcement of fines at the local level with the commission in order to prevent local filing officers from having to impose fines on the people they work for, or in cases of small municipalities, imposing fines on themselves.
  4. Continue using the commission’s system where online filing already exists and do not place the burden of such technology on local offices, even as an option.

The Speaker’s bills should reflect the real reform he promised.  But, the House will likely pass these gimmicks today, leaving it to the Senate to create real reform.

About William Perry

Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia
This entry was posted in Georgia Legislation, Government Ethics, Lobbying and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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