By: Greyson Clark
Georgia is the worst of the worst, at least according to the Center for Public Integrity. Its project, State Integrity Investigation, puts Georgia in 50th place, making it the most likely state in which to find corruption. This is a blow to Southern pride. Or is the corruption, like Southern pride, a reflection of Georgia’s political culture?
The answer to this question is illuminated by two news stories. The stories are dug not from the deep recesses of Georgia’s news archives; they are still developing, and they make questions about Georgia’s ethical practices particularly relevant today.
July 2012 was the first sign of real momentum for ethics reform in Georgia. A nonbinding question found on both Republican and Democratic primary ballots asked if voters would support a cap on gifts from lobbyists to legislators. Significant majorities from each party said yes. This year, Georgia Senators, recognizing the popular support, passed a bill that required gifts from a lobbyist to a member of the General Assembly to be under $100. The Speaker of the House, David Ralston, found problems with the Senate Bill and sponsored a House Bill that restricts all gifts from lobbyists to members of the General Assembly and to local governments. This bill has not yet passed and is being amended, but it seems to retain stricter guidelines than the Senate’s legislation.
The life stories of these bills must be coupled with a second 2013 news story. Enter Chip Rogers, former Republican Senate Majority Leader. Rogers resigned after national news sources covered a strange lecture he organized that accused Obama of mind control. The saga continued when Governor Deal supported Roger’s new position at Georgia Public Broadcasting. In this position, the disgraced former Senator makes $150,000 a year.
The position does not have a job description, and one GPB employee resigned, saying that the entire situation felt like cronyism. The final development thus far is by far the most amusing. State Senator Bill Heath has received thousands of emails protesting Roger’s new job at GPB. His automatic email response called these Georgia taxpayers annoying and accused them of wasting his time and resources. A humorous recording from a local news station shows Senator Heath running and hiding from the reporter and her camera.
As these two news stories develop simultaneously, contradictions begin to come into plain sight. On the one hand there are efforts in the General Assembly, supported by Governor Deal, to curb the influence lobbyists have over lawmakers. But on the other hand, a high paying position is given to catch a man suffering from a political fallout of his own doing. Which of these is the real Georgia?
These two issues are not as disconnected as it would appear. They are both rooted in the same political culture – the political culture of Southern pride and of Georgia politics. Considered together, they create a dynamic that merits some serious soul searching. Should a government support ethics reform while simultaneously protecting their political friends? Is it fair to say that corruption runs much deeper in Georgia?
Clearly, the ethics reform bills in both the House and the Senate would not prevent the repetition of the Chip Roger’s saga. In fact, opponents of the legislation have voiced an interesting argument against the bills. Among others, Representative Rusty Kidd argued that anyone who is corrupt is just going to remain corrupt. This argument represents a disempowered attitude: corruption is so pervasive in Georgia’s government that no one can keep it from happening. Admittedly, Representative Kidd has a point; Speaker Ralston himself took a gift from a lobbyist worth $17,000. He and his family went on a trip to Europe to study trains. Even the Governor was involved with Chip Roger’s appointment to GPB.
While these actions are not illegal, are they ethical? Georgia’s political culture may contribute to the disparities between what government says and what politicians do. A culture that distrusts regulation, has a social history of privacy, and an embedded sense of respect for authority all go a long way in obstructing the ethical operation of government. These values correspond with the individual ‘F’s’ on our state’s corruption scorecard. Distrust of regulation contributes to an ‘F’ in enforcement agencies, privacy underpins an ‘F’ for public access to information, and the immunity that covers authority figures supports the ‘F’ for legislative accountability and a ‘D-’ for executive accountability.
Are these the consequences of Southern Pride? The legislation being presented is only hinting at the mountain of misconduct in Georgia’s government. After all, turning in a single assignment will not change a grade from an ‘F’ to an ‘A.’ At least some action is being taken to rein in corruption, but we need to be wary of our Southern culture – our Southern pride. For meaningful ethical reform to be accomplished, we may need to suspend our disbelief in regulation a little and learn to not accept our politicians’ actions at face value.