“THE RABBITS ARE IN CHARGE OF THE LETTUCE”
Columbus State Rep. Richard Smith and I got into a conversation about the Republican and Democratic primaries straw vote on capping the dollar amount of gifts that lobbyists shower on Georgia lawmakers. The state ethics law puts no limits on the amount on those gifts, but it does require that they be reported. Neither one of us was surprised that voters overwhelming supported limiting lobbyists contributions. He didn’t support the $100 cap. For one reason, he said, it was basically meaningless to cap the amount at $100. “For instance,” he said, “instead of asking one lobbyist to donate $700, you ask seven lobbyists to give $100 each.”
Besides, he said, the best way to stop the corruption is to elect honest people who won’t take money from lobbyists. He said he flat doesn’t do it, except for meals at restaurants. I must admit that I had been served a few free meals when I was reporting for TV stations, and I told myself that it would take a lot more than a free lunch to buy me. I would eat their lunch and still tell the truth about what they were doing. That reminds me of what the late Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin said when he lost his last race for governor. Back then it was common for candidates to serve barbecue at campaign rallies. He said, “A lot of people who ate my barbecue didn’t vote for me.”
To make the point to Richard about the public’s attitude toward lawmakers in general, I used the example of when I was speaking to students at Central High School about the importance of staying informed about what legislators do in Montgomery. One student said he didn’t pay attention because “they are all crooks.” I was still working as a news anchor at WTVM at the time. Since I had spent a lot of time covering the legislatures in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, I understood where he got that idea.
Richard said that he knew a lot of people felt that way, but disagreed that all were crooks. I agree with him on that. Enough are, though, to stain all of them.
Since Webster defines being a crook as “a person who engages in fraudulent or criminal practices,” we suspect that many may not be crooked because their unethical acts are legal. They are legal because they make the rules.
I read in the AJC where a lobbyist could (and did) give Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston $17,000 to take his family to Europe and broke no laws doing it. The lobbyist had to report it, but that’s the extent of the law. Now you may think a legislative leader taking a gift of $17,000 is ethical. After all, as many of the receivers of such gifts will tell you, taking the money does not influence the way they vote on laws affecting the organization the lobbyist represents. Give me a break.
I have to agree with Richard about the hundred-dollar cap. It would not stop the corruption. I don’t agree that the solution is to elect honest office seekers who won’t accept legal bribes. How does a voter really know if a candidate is honest? Still, I think Sen. Josh McKoon did the right thing by getting the issue put on the primary ballots. It enabled the legislators to know that voters are not happy with their cozy relationships with lobbyists. Maybe they’ll get serious about coming up with an ethics law that will work. I wouldn’t bet on it, though. Yes, the rabbits are in charge of the lettuce at the Capitol, and it’ll probably stay that way.