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Ethics champion aims next on conference committees

Posted: September 3, 2013 - 11:01pm

ATLANTA — The freshman legislator who suffered the cold shoulders of his veteran colleagues by proposing a limit on lobbyists’ gifts in 2011 is now a veteran himself, and flush with ultimate victory on the new gift-limit law, Sen. Josh McKoon has taken aim at the next legislative tradition he considers “the single greatest obstacle to a transparent legislative process.”

McKoon, a Columbus Republican, had help in pushing through an ethics-reform bill that caps at $75 individual gifts by lobbyists. It was the first time the state has placed any limits on what officeholders could receive.

Restricting the largess of politicians struck Georgians as common sense. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats supported a limit or outright ban in straw polls during the 2012 primary.

The issue brought together liberal environmental groups, labor unions and conservative tea party activists. The broad coalition and the popular support were too much for legislative leaders to overcome, and so they grudgingly succumbed to passing something.

In McKoon’s next quest, he may not draw the same widespread backing because his target is a rather obtuse parliamentary function known as conference committees. There is little popular outrage because the public is largely unaware of them because of how they operate, which is precisely his point.

Their purpose is to negotiate compromise when the House and Senate pass different versions of bills, meaning those where at least some controversy exists. The speaker appoints three members to meet with the lieutenant governor’s trio of appointees.

Their meetings are supposed to be open to the public, but usually they are casual affairs: a quick step into a conference room, hallway or back of the legislative chamber. There is no notice of when or where.

Reporters, lobbyists and concerned citizens have no way of knowing about them, and frequently most of the conferees themselves don’t attend, leaving the real negotiation to the speaker, governor and lieutenant governor.

“You hear rumors that none of the participants were even in the room,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause of Georgia.

The version of the bill the conferees agree to – often under instructions from the leaders who appointed them – is called a conference committee report, and it can contain provisions that were never voted on by either chamber and even the addition of whole bills that had been rejected somewhere along the legislative process.

“I find that the single greatest obstacle to a transparent legislative process is the way conference committee reports are handled,” McKoon wrote in a recent column.

Legislative rules require the reports be distributed to lawmakers – not the public – one hour before they can be voted on. In the chaos of the final hours of a legislative session when all of the conference reports flood in, legislators have little opportunity to sort out the potential impact of compromises and additions or to consult with members of the public who could offer insight.

“For example, one conference report we received addressing fishing licenses included a provision that made a significant change to Georgia’s ethics law,” McKoon wrote. “And while I do enjoy fishing, I don’t see how it is any relation to ethics.”

McKoon notes that the wording conferees start with was the result of a months-long, public vetting process and the collective wisdom of each legislative body. But the changes and additions the conferees make can only be evaluated in 60 minutes while other bills are being debated and voted on.

“It seems done strategically to pass bills that don’t get read,” Perry said.

If the senator had the support of the public but not necessarily lobbyists behind his gift limit, the circumstances are reversed now. Veteran lobbyists also complain that the mystery proceedings of conference committees don’t serve their interests either, but they are hesitant to complain too loudly about those they curry favor from.

The beneficiaries of the current system are those who control the conferees. They have nearly a free hand to craft controversial legislation. Occasionally, they even manipulate passage of differing versions of bills just to necessitate a conference committee.

McKoon wants to require all conference reports be submitted 24 hours in advance rather than just one. It’s a change reporters, citizen advocates and rank-and-file legislators would support.

But he has to overcome the reticence of the most powerful men in the Capitol without having the leverage of popular opinion that was critical to his gift-limit success.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com or (404) 589-8424.)

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