Tommy Smith has been part of the Georgia Legislature for a long time.
The silver-haired blueberry farmer from Bacon County was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1978, when a guy named Jimmy Carter was president. Smith was a lifelong Democrat until a few years ago, when he switched to the Republican Party and was able to hang on to a committee chairmanship.
Josh McKoon is a young attorney from Columbus who is in the middle of his first term as a state senator.
A Republican Party activist before he first decided to run for public office, McKoon is less than 10 years out of law school and hadn’t even been born yet when Tommy Smith was first sworn in as a House member.
These lawmakers have emerged as the unlikely heroes of this General Assembly session for those who believe that their elected representatives should make decisions free from the undue influence of the lobbyists who crowd the Capitol hallways.
Smith and McKoon introduced bills that would strengthen the state’s ethics laws. Their measures would, for the first time, put a legal limit on the money that lobbyists can spend to wine, dine, and otherwise entertain legislators: $100 per lawmaker.
For the record, Smith’s bill is designated as HB 798. McKoon’s is known as SB 391.
As you might expect, McKoon and Smith have not been overrun by other lawmakers eager to sign their bills.
One other House Republican, Ellis Black, is listed as a co-sponsor of Smith’s bill along with Democrats Mary Margaret Oliver, Kathy Ashe, Elly Dobbs and Pat Gardner. McKoon has found a few co-sponsors in Republican senators Steve Gooch, Butch Miller, David Shafer, Jesse Stone and Mike Crane.
The ethics bills are enthusiastically supported by advocacy organizations from both ends of the political spectrum such as Tea Party Patriots, Common Cause Georgia, Georgia Watch and the League of Women Voters.
Neither bill, of course, has a snowball’s chance in Hades of reaching the governor’s desk for a signature. House Speaker David Ralston and the rest of the House Republican leadership are implacably opposed to the idea of placing any limitations on the gifts that lobbyists can give to legislators.
Ralston has long maintained that the current ethics laws are strong enough, thank you, because they require regular and complete disclosure of what lobbyists and candidates spend. This transparency gives voters all the data they need to make an informed decision about the people who represent them, Ralston said.
“Let the people be the judge about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” he said. “I trust their judgment.”
If the people in Ralston’s district were to look at the information available about him, they would discover that he and his family once enjoyed a week-long excursion in Europe for which the expenses of $17,000 were paid by a friendly lobbyist. That amount is about 170 times the limit on lobbyist spending that Smith and McKoon have included in their ethics bills.
Let me say that I do not believe Ralston is a dishonest politician. He has done some admirable things since replacing Glenn Richardson as House speaker. But there are many temptations placed in front of legislators by lobbyists for the rich and powerful. I think the speaker may be underestimating just how alluring those temptations can be.
McKoon notes that Georgia is now one of only three states that still allows lobbyists to spend however much they want to influence legislators. (The other two are South Dakota and Indiana.)
“It’s clear that Georgia is out of line with the rest of the country,” McKoon said. “It’s created a crisis of confidence in our state – we have a cloud, if you will, on everything we are doing.”
Smith conceded that his ethics bill probably won’t progress very far, given the expressed attitudes of the House leadership.
“All I can do is introduce the bill and do what is right,” Smith said. “It’s up to them to do what is right in their hearts.”
That admonition applies to Georgia’s voters as well. If enough of them want to see stronger ethics requirements made part of the law, they can decide through the people they elect whether that is done.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)