Originally created 01/26/03

Ethics package has tough path despite support

ATLANTA - Ethics reform is suddenly in vogue at the state Capitol.

Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor in 130 years, has made ethics one of his top priorities for the year, along with education and the economy.

Democrat Terry Coleman, the first new House speaker in nearly 30 years, has hired a Savannah native to serve as the chamber's ethics counsel.

If only they didn't have to put the reforms into law.

Mr. Perdue is expected to introduce his first of what could be several ethics bills this week. The debate will then move to the nitty-gritty of hashing out legislation that passes the common-sense test and won't be saddled with unintended consequences.

"Everybody's in favor of ethics, like everybody's in favor of education and against crime," said Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "(But) you've got to have a law that's clear and simple enough that everybody running for office can understand it and comply with it."

"The devil's in the details," added Sen. Bill Stephens, R-Canton, Mr. Perdue's floor leader in the Senate.

The governor unveiled a comprehensive package of ethics reforms last week, the most ambitious ever undertaken in a state known for weak ethics laws.

Four years ago, the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity ranked Georgia 33rd in enforcement of ethical standards for public officials.

But the state could move up significantly if the Legislature passes even a portion of Mr. Perdue's reforms, which include tougher financial-disclosure requirements, a ban on nepotism, a one-year prohibition on former lawmakers working as lobbyists and a ban on compensation for public appearances or speeches.

"It would certainly make Georgia's laws some of the strongest in the nation," said Peggy Kerns, the director of the Denver-based Center for Ethics in Government. Historically, the General Assembly has been hostile ground for good-government bills. But the climate for ethics reform is different this year.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the November elections have given Democrats and Republicans motivation for hopping on the ethics bandwagon.

Democrats blame Mr. Perdue's upset victory over former Gov. Roy Barnes in part on a series of news reports detailing ethical lapses within Mr. Barnes' administration. Ethical woes played a more critical role in the defeat of former Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta.

"Democrats may feel they got their heads handed to them because of perceived weak ethics," Mr. Bullock said.

Since Republicans used the Democrats' ethics problems as a campaign issue, GOP election winners likely feel an obligation to do better. Beyond that, both Mr. Perdue and the Senate's new Republican majority arrived unencumbered by ties with the status quo that made some Democratic leaders sluggish on ethics reform.

"Governor Perdue was elected not owing much of anything to anybody," said Mr. Stephens, referring to the 6-1 fund-raising advantage Mr. Barnes built over Mr. Perdue during the campaign."

Then there's the ultimate reason for politicians to get behind a cause: The voters want it.

More than two-thirds of the respondents to a poll conducted by UGA's Carl Vinson Institute of Government last June said ethics in government is a greater problem today than in the past.

With the governor and the Legislature clamoring for reform, it would appear to be smooth sailing for Mr. Perdue's ethics package.

But it won't be that easy. Lawyers in the Legislature, sticklers for detail, are sure to question the ramifications of the governor's proposals.

Lobbyists are worried that the reforms could come down on gifts so hard that they won't even be able to buy a cup of coffee for a legislator. Massachusetts, Wisconsin and South Carolina have the "no-cup-of-coffee" rule.

Ms. Kerns, a former Colorado legislator, said it's impossible to cover every potential ethical misstep with a law. That's why she likes the portion of Mr. Perdue's package that calls for stepping up training and counseling of legislators and other public officials.

"A lot of this could be avoided if a legislator just had somebody to talk it through with," she said.


Georgia would enter the top half of states with the strictest ethics-in-government laws under legislation being proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue. All four of the following issues are addressed in his reforms:

27: States that don't allow legislators to receive contributions during a legislative session

26: States that prohibit former legislators from lobbying the Legislature for a given time after they leave office

23: States that don't allow legislators to receive honorariums if connected with their official duties

19: States that prohibit legislators from hiring relatives

Source: Center for Ethics in Government


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