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Set Georgia's ethics commission free

Effective ethics must include stronger enforcement

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Last week, a Republican state lawmaker backed by nearly every Tea Party group and right-to-life organization in Georgia proposed an ethics package that would cap lobbyist gifts at $100, extend the waiting period for departing state officials to become lobbyists, and prevent elected officials' family members from holding government contracts.

Despite his support by conservative groups, the bill's author, state Rep. Tommy Smith, R-Alma, found only two co-sponsors — and they were Democrats. His GOP colleagues have all but said the bill doesn't stand a chance.

It's normal to think that tightening ethic laws would clean up government, especially state government, which every year seems to embarrass us with news stories of affairs, influence peddling, or outright corruption. But last week's rejection by House Republicans simply shows that state lawmakers, after passing an arguably watered-down ethics package last year, don't have the appetite to go any further. Some, including Speaker David Ralston, who last year with his family enjoyed a (perfectly legal) $17,000 lobbyist-funded European junket to ride high-speed trains, say it's more important to make lobbyist perks more transparent. Make the rules on perks too restrictive, some have argued, and lobbying activities will go underground.

An alternative approach to limiting gifts — which, under this Gold Dome, is not politically viable — is to step up enforcement. If you stay aboveboard, you've nothing to worry about.

One proposal that could have a real impact would be to strengthen the ethics commission. Introduced by state Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, Senate Bill 315 would make the state independent of the General Assembly as well as the governor's office, which now allocates its funding and appoints its commission members. Commission members would be appointed by the chief judges of the state Supreme Court and Georgia Court of Appeals. If passed, the legislation would also create a dedicated funding source for the Ethics Commission that couldn't be gutted by lawmakers.

The state would finally have robust, well-funded ethics investigators with the muscle to not only collect the millions of dollars in outstanding fines and fees that lawmakers owe, but also hold public officials accountable without fear of political retribution.

Unfortunately, because Stoner has a "D" behind his name, we doubt GOP lawmakers will give his proposal much consideration.

Instead, they'll probably devote their attention to, say, a resolution introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers that calls for the United Nations to abandon a sustainable development program that right-wing conspiracy theorists believe is a plot for world domination. Or perhaps a House bill to allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed in all public buildings. Anything to distract voters away from demanding more honesty and transparency from their state government.

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