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Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 12:26pm

Ethics Reform Scope Widens

A state senator from Columbus says he’ll call for changing how Georgia funds an ethics commission in the upcoming legislative session.

Sen. Joshua McKoon says that would probably require a constitutional amendment, which needs a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the legislature to pass before going to the voters for approval.

The ethics commission funding legislation is one of several bills he plans to file. He’s also pushing for a lobbyist gift cap.

“Some of them will be aimed at making sure the ethics commission is not subject to the vagaries of the appropriations process going forward," he said in an interview. "I think we need to have a mechanism in place to independently fund the commission.

The state has cut funding to the commission in recent years. Many other state agencies have also had to slash their budgets. But watchdog groups say lawmakers have deliberately crippled a commission charged with overseeing their conduct.

Charles Bullock is a University of Georgia political scientist. He says the public supports ethics reform. In a July referendum, for example, more than one million Georgians in both major parties said they would support a cap on gifts from lobbyists to state legislators.

But he says finding more money for the agency during the budget process won’t be easy for lawmakers.

“You can fully anticipate that higher education, public education, prisons, the department of health, every [other agency] is going to be coming in and saying, ‘We’ve been on a pretty lean diet for years. If there’s any money available, we think we have a pretty good claim on it’,” he said Thursday.

Bullock says that will give lawmakers a ready excuse to pass on the legislation. He says he thinks it's much likelier that a gift cap will pass. The Georgia Ethics Alliance, which includes the Tea Party, Common Cause Georgia and other groups, is promoting a proposal to limit lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers to $100.

McKoon filed similar legislation last year, but was unable to interest fellow lawmakers in the idea and the bill died at the end of the session. Since then, the public overwhelmingly approved the non-binding referendum on the gift cap, and the Tea Party has stepped up pressure.

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