Georgia ReportNews

Capitol Impact

There was a lot of outrage and indignation last week among the good-government types over media reports that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle had received a $5,000 weekend golf outing from lobbyists for a healthcare outfit called Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA).

In addition to that Oct. 12 round of golf, Cagle was gifted with a cocktail party and two nights’ lodging at The Cloister on Sea Island, a posh resort primarily patronized by those in the high-income brackets. His golf outing was part of the preliminary events in a PGA tournament known as the McGladrey Classic.

Many of my colleagues in the media sputtered and fumed about Cagle’s trip, but I don’t understand why anyone was outraged at this. This kind of glad-handing has been going on for years among the politicians that the voters elect to the General Assembly. It was just a year ago this month that House Speaker David Ralston, his chief of staff Spiro Amburn, and their immediate family members were embarking on a $17,000 expenses-paid junket to Europe, courtesy of a lobbyist for passenger-rail interests.

That little trip was the most expensive single expenditure reported by a lobbyist in Georgia since at least 2005. Ralston said the jaunt to Germany and the Netherlands enabled him to understand better how European countries handle their mix of rail and related transportation facilities. I have no doubt that it was an educational journey for the speaker.

Even though some have questioned the propriety of what Cagle, Ralston and dozens of other legislators do each year, what they do is permissible under Georgia law. It is all perfectly legal.

Every state surrounding Georgia puts limitations on the gifts that an elected official can receive from individual lobbyists. South and North Carolina allow no lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. In Georgia, by contrast, there are no limits on what a legislator can accept from lobbyists. None whatsoever. This has been the case for a long time.

When Sonny Perdue established GOP control of the governor’s office for the first time in more than a century, one of the first things he tried to accomplish was an upgrading of the state’s ethics law that included a limitation on lobbyist gifts. Perdue proposed a limit of $50 on the gifts that legislators could accept.

The governor’s efforts to write that restriction into law went nowhere because of the implacable opposition of the House speaker at the time, Glenn Richardson. Richardson, who later would resign from the General Assembly after his affair with a female lobbyist was exposed, insisted that the gift limitation be stripped from Perdue’s bill.

Richardson was so adamant about removing the gift ban that even Perdue’s House floor leader, Rep. Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla), voted in committee to carry out Richardson’s wishes.

After Richardson was forced from the Legislature in disgrace, his successor picked up right where the former speaker left off. Ralston, who sponsored his own rewrite of the state’s ethics law, said he also was flat-out opposed to any limitation of any kind on the freebies that lobbyists could give to lawmakers. It was sufficient merely to file public reports disclosing these gifts, Ralston contended.

“I trust the people of this state to make those judgments,” he said. “I’m comfortable with letting the people make the determination. They know what to do.”

Ralston knew his people well. Georgia voters have consistently indicated that ethically questionable behavior does not seem to bother them. There have been numerous media reports in recent years of the meals, drinks and other perks that lobbyists for entities like Cancer Treatment Centers of America and Delta Air Lines have given to legislators. None of the lawmakers involved, as best I can determine, ever lost an election because they accepted these gifts.

Was it a surprise that Cagle has become the latest political figure to be given an expensive junket by lobbyists? It shouldn’t have been.

Do the voters even care about any of this? They don’t appear to.

Legislators and other elected officials will continue to accept favors and freebies from lobbyists, because their constituents let them. In the end, it’s only the voters who have the power to put a stop to this practice.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at that reports on government and politics in Georgia.