The head of nonpartisan civics watchdog group Common Cause Georgia compares the ethics bill passed by Georgia's 2010 General Assembly to the one approved by its counterpart in Alabama. And a striking difference, notes Bill Bozarth, is that two of the most significant changes enacted in Alabama - both pushed by Common Cause as well as by some lawmakers in both parties - never made it into Georgia's bill.
One would have capped what lobbyists can spend wining and dining public officials. Convictions on lobbyist spending, as with other kinds of political largess, are generally split between those who see it as government for sale to the highest bidder and those who defend it as a First Amendment issue - a form of political advocacy ("access" has long been the euphemism of choice) that should not be rationed.
The other, about which there should have been absolutely no ambivalence, would have banned or limited transfers of money from one political action committee to another. The accountability dodge of PAC-to-PAC transfers is a time-dishonored means of hiding sources of political cash. In other contexts, it's called money laundering.
There are some substantive changes. Candidates for local office in Georgia will now be required to report all campaign contributions and all political spending on a state website, so that voters can have easy access to that information as they consider their decisions.
The bill also mandates more frequent spending disclosures from lobbyists, increases lobbying fees, and increases fines for violations by both lobbyists and lawmakers. It calls for annual financial disclosures by members of the state Transportation Board.
Among the law's less inspiring details: It prohibits sexual harassment, which one might have thought was a no-no already; but after the sordid saga of former House Speaker Glenn Richardson lawmakers apparently felt the need to take a stand.
And it changes the name of the Ethics Commission to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Nothing like injecting a little more bureaucratese into government and calling it reform.
Common Cause's Bozarth alerted Georgians to one clause in the new law that might serve more to protect unethical conduct than prevent it: a "loser pays" provision under which someone filing an ethics complaint found to be frivolous might have to pay legal fees. Depending on who is empowered to define "frivolous," that clause could be a deterrent even to legitimate complaints.
Some lawmakers say ethics legislation could come up again in 2011, as indeed it should.
More on that later.