When one is a stranger in a strange land like Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, it can really help to look as though one “belongs.”
Despite a very bad false step regarding how he handled his vote on the ha-ha-that’s-funny resolution on ethics Hufstetler really had a pretty good debut week. Let’s chalk up his “yea” vote and cheerleading on an atrocious ethics stance — marginally better than the absolutely nothing the General Assembly previously had while looking like pigs being slopped by special interests — to his knowing the first commandment of the politically powerful in Georgia: One goes along to get along.
He must have convinced his GOP peers as he collected a nifty bag of committee goodies of the sort that accomplish the most important thing a local senator can do: Put himself in position to influence matters of great concern to the community.
Why, he even landed the vice-chairmanship of the State and Local Government Operations Committee where he instantly likely drew cheers from city/county leaders across the state by declaring: “I hope I can be helpful, especially about not having the state government impose mandates on local governments. Having been there, I know what kind of problems it can cause.” If he can put a stop to this way that the state uses to balance its own budget by pushing functions off on local taxpayers — or better still reverses it — Hufstetler could win any statewide office he might desire.
ADDITIONALLY — and think about what is big and vital to Greater Rome — Hufstetler, an anesthesiologist in his latest of several successful careers, was quite properly put on the Health and Human Services Committee plus on education and youth, science and technology. That’s an extremely strong and well-placed array, putting him in excellent position to make his voice heard on much that matters. Hence, to some extent Hufstetler perhaps achieved this by appearing to be a team player by joining the majority on the awful ethics resolution and becoming the lead trumpeter about how great it was.
He didn’t land a slot on his own top priority — finance — where he is probably super-well-qualified by both past experience and performance. Remember, he joined the County Commission when it was flat busted and, eight years later, left it with a huge pile of reserves sufficient for his successors to make it through the Great Recession.
Senators who don’t indicate a willingness to play well with others tend to wind up on panels like retirement, special judiciary ... or ethics. And, regarding finances, the senators in charge of money tend not to let any “new boy” anywhere near it.
Still, his ethics stance was disappointing particular for those who know how personally principled he is. Perhaps he couldn’t just abstain (it passed 42-12 after all) and look like a team player but to go on and publicly say: “With the passage of this resolution, Georgia is aligning itself with other states in order to become a more transparent governmental body. It is an honor to serve in a Senate that conveys trust and honesty for our constituents” was way more than necessary.
THOSE constituents across the state, in a pre-session poll by an Atlanta newspaper, supported a gift limit of zero dollars all the time by a margin of more than 70 percent with another 15 percent supporting a true $100 cap. That leaves less than 15 percent who like lobbyist gifting just the way it is, perhaps in the belief that they someday can win a ticket on the gravy train.
The Senate’s ethical stance was nothing more than a political ploy, a fail-safe in case the House and Senate passage of actual legislation winds up gridlocked with nothing accomplished. Then the Senate can boast only it is concerned about ethics and provide members with some slim political cover.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who now supports a total ban on all gifts to all legislators — after himself starting the public outrage by accepting a $17,000 lobbyist trip to Germany for his family to look at model trains of the high-speed sort that Georgia will never spend money on — correctly pegged the Senate action: “If they want to call that real reform, I’ve got some oceanfront property in a place called Blue Ridge; I’ll be glad to take them this afternoon to sell them.”
With the introductory $100 limit on gift values the Senate resolution — which is a paper policy position without the force of law — starts off looking fairly good but then come the ifs, ands, buts. There are loads of them, including an exemption regarding anything to do with official business and barring anyone not employed by the Senate from raising a complaint.
IN OTHER WORDS, if a lobbyist invites a senator on an all-expenses trip to the Super Bowl and calls it a birthday present, that would be illegal. If the lobbyist says it is to show him the value of supporting a new billion-dollar stadium for the Atlanta Falcons that would be acceptable ... just as it was yesterday.
In real life, Hufstetler would no more rely on paper promises than he would have when State Mutual Stadium was built and he was out there constantly making sure the contractor and materials lived up to specifications.
Additionally, regarding that $100 gift limit, as of the start of this legislative session there were 1,276 registered lobbyists in Georgia. If they limit gifts/meals to a senator to $99 — word is some few steaks can be bought at that price — that creates the potential of a single senator receiving $126,342 in a single day if all give him/her something.
Nor is that per day ... it is per gift. The only thing keeping a senator from accepting a $99 breakfast, $99 lunch, $99 dinner and $99 show ticket with $99 in drinks after the event ($495 in one day or a potential of $631,620 if all lobbyists are that intent on wooing) is the physical impossibility of being in 1,276 places at the same time or having 1,275 clones created. That is sure some gift limit!
Hufstetler has plainly positioned himself very well to serve his constituents in the long run but at the same time dented the high-minded image that got him sent to the Golden Dome in the first place. Of course, should a House measure made of sterner stuff arrive in the Senate that will be when Hufstetler can actually have a positive impact.
FRANKLY, DENTED politicians can often keep running and making mileage for a long, long time. Perhaps this will be the first and last ding to the Hufstetler image.