It looks like our legislators are about to lose one of their most cherished perks: free football tickets. Bless their hearts.
This is the last year lizard-loafered lobbyists can give legislators free access to see our scholar-athletes do their thing on Saturday afternoons across the state. A prohibition against this long-revered tradition begins Jan. 1, as a part of an ethics reform measure that passed in the last session of the General Assembly.
Let’s not give the solons too much credit here for their random act of kindness. Had it not been for your incessant calls and letters and general hell-raising, I suspect our intrepid public servants would have punted this issue into the unforeseeable future.
But like a possible Hail Mary pass, don’t think the game is over yet. According to a recent report by the Associated Press, Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer (R-Duluth) has asked for a legal opinion on whether employees of Georgia’s higher education system are legally considered lobbyists. If they are not, they would not be subject to the new rules and perhaps could perhaps still provide politicians with free tickets to athletic events.
If the ruling is that universities and colleges in Georgia can, in fact, continue to dole out free tickets to games that are not available to rank-and-file Georgians (i.e., voters), will Shafer use his considerable influence to eliminate that loophole? The senator notes that he buys his own tickets to University of Georgia football games. Good for him. So why wouldn’t he want to make sure the playing field is level for all of us — politicians and plebeians?
My vote for MVP (Most Valid Perspective) goes to State Rep. Mike Cheokas (R-Americus), vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Appropriations that oversees the budget for higher education in Georgia. Given his key position, I suspect Cheokas would be a high-profile candidate for free tickets, but he isn’t interested. Cheokas says he is already following the new rules that go into effect in January.
"Yeah," he told the Associated Press, "I could go ahead and accept tickets, but what’s the point? I feel like I would not be abiding by the spirit of the law." Touchdown!
Let’s assume that freebies to football games are going the way of the Single Wing formation. I have a nagging suspicion that our legislators will consider the matter of ethics reform over and done with. What has been accomplished to date came primarily as a result of your unhappiness — to put it mildly — with reports of House Speaker David Ralston’s (R-Blue Ridge) ill-considered trip to Germany with staff and family over the 2010 Thanksgiving holidays, courtesy of an unregistered Washington lobbyist.
Ethics reform was not a fun topic for our intrepid public servants. You might say their hearts weren’t in it. And they got a little testy at your meddling. I still have the names you sent me of legislators who either ignored your calls and letters during the debate or gave you a condescending response that bordered on insulting your intelligence.
Left pretty much untouched is the issue of campaign contributions. As we get closer to the next session in January, I am going to give you the steps you can take to get on the website of the Georgia Government Transparency and (exhale) Campaign Finance Committee and see who is contributing money to legislators and how much. You will find a number of powerful incumbents raking in tens of thousands of dollars from corporations and special interest groups without any possibility of opposition in their next election.
Why? I suspect you are way ahead of me on this. The money isn’t for the legislator’s reelection campaign; it is to buy access and influence. For example, watch who leads the fight in the next session against our public schools in Georgia and see who is contributing to their campaigns.
Forbes Magazine recently did an excellent piece on what a big business for-profit education is becoming. It is not about "school choice" and the kids. It is about the bottom line of education management companies and their political cronies.
As for ethics reform, giving up football tickets is no big deal. There are still plenty of ways to influence politicians. All it takes is money. If our legislators think the clock has run out on our interest in stronger ethical behavior, they are badly mistaken.
They had better strap on their helmets because We the Unwashed are still in this game.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Ga., 31139.