This may be the year ethics reform gets rolling at the state level, William Perry told about 30 people Wednesday at the League of Women Voters of Macon monthly gathering.
Perry, executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit group Common Cause Georgia, spoke at a lunchtime meeting at the Brickyard at Riverside.
Common Cause Georgia has a strong partnership with the League of Women Voters but is also joining with the Georgia Watch consumer group, Georgia Tea Party Patriots and Georgia Conservatives in Action in a broad-based push for ethics reform, Perry said.
Its badly needed, as indicated by a nationwide 2012 survey by the Center for Public Integrity, he said.
Does anybody want to guess where Georgia ranked out of the 50 states? Fiftieth, he said.
The study rated states on legal safeguards against potential corruption. The best existing laws are in states like Illinois, New Jersey and Louisiana, which have big scandals in their past, so Georgia legislators should consider this a chance to prevent similar problems here, Perry said.
One of Common Cause Georgias top issues is restricting gifts from lobbyists to legislators.
Georgia is one of only three states in the entire nation where that is unlimited, Perry said.
One glaring example was the Thanksgiving 2010 trip taken by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to Europe, Perry said.
The speaker, his wife and children, his chief of staff and chief of staffs wife spent a week ostensibly seeing how high-speed rail travel affects communities. The $17,000 cost was covered by a lobbyist for a high-speed rail firm, Perry said.
That kind of extravagance is what were targeting, he said.
Common Cause Georgia has pressed for legislation on 26 issues for a couple of years, but the first time around not a single legislator picked up the issue, Perry said. Last year the groups agenda had bipartisan support, but Republican leaders in both houses sent it to die in respective rules committees, he said.
Perry said leaders claimed they had too many other big issues to deal with in the 40-day session, but he was unconvinced after seeing legislators actual schedule.
I watched an almost 90-minute debate on the introduction of foreign tilapia into Georgia fish farms, he said.
But in the past year, both Democratic and Republican state executive committees agreed to place a ban on lobbyist gifts worth more than $100 on their primary ballots. That drew an overwhelming mandate from 83 percent of Georgia voters, which made legislators take notice, Perry said.
Believe it or not, theyre actually responding down there, he said.
Four bills dealing with ethics were introduced for the start of the current legislative session, and Common Cause Georgias own bill hasnt appeared yet, Perry said. When it does, there are already 28 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 22 in the Senate, he said.
Answering questions from the crowd, Perry said Georgia has a very good transparency law on reporting gifts from lobbyists -- but the state ethics commission has been stripped of much of its power and cant take serious action against violators.
All state departments took big cuts in the 2008 recession, but the ethics commission -- now renamed the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission -- lost 42 percent of its budget, more than any other, Perry said. It went from 31 employees to 12, he said.
Asked where Common Cause Georgia gets its money, Perry said the group is regularly accused by both Democrats and Republicans of serving the others interests. But last years budget of about $147,000 came almost entirely from 4,000 individual memberships. Common Cause Georgia is one of about 35 independent branches of the national Common Cause group and has two paid employees, he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.