House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, will propose next year a full ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, delighting ethics advocates and worrying some lobbyists.
Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday that a simple cap on the value of those gifts would do little to stem the influence of special interests. Instead, he said, he will propose to end the practice outright.
"I have always said while I believe the current system is a good system because it does provide information and it's open and transparent that if we didn't have that system then a prohibition would be better than a cap, and I haven't changed my mind," Ralston said.
The speaker said he will form an informal group of House members to study how other states have implemented gift bans with a goal of passing a bill early in the legislative session that begins in January.
The Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Common Cause Georgia and Georgia Conservatives in Action have for more than a year advocated for a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts. Lobbyists under current law can make unlimited gifts to elected officials but must disclose all spending. Lobbyists spend about $1.6 million a year, mostly on food, trips and event tickets for lawmakers.
Republican and Democratic voters overwhelmingly supported a cap in nonbinding referendums held during the July 31 primaries.
Ralston and other House leaders have largely been alone in advocating instead for the current system, which emphasizes reporting and transparency, calling a cap a "gimmick." With more than 87 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats voting to support a cap, Ralston said he got the message that changes were needed.
Voters "spoke on the issue in the primary," Ralston said. "I'm committed from the House side to making sure we have real, serious ethics reform."
Ralston's move has been questioned by some as a ploy. With Senate leaders on record supporting a cap, Ralston could argue instead for an outright ban, and the resulting legislative scrum could scuttle any change in the current system. But Ralston said he is committed to getting it done, and his support would lend the effort a serious chance to pass.
Jet Toney, chairman of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association, said his 140-plus members are split on the issue.
"Some members believe that a cap or a ban would level the playing field," he said. "Others would not like to see a cap or ban because it would, they believe, disadvantage them."
Toney said he personally has concerns.
"As a businessman with a payroll, with long-standing clients, as a taxpaying business, I don't personally want to see any restrictions on the ability of my firm to use every legal means that we have to deliver our clients' message," he said.
If adopted, Georgia would join many other Southern states with bans on lobbyist gifts. North Carolina passed one of the nation's toughest ethics laws in 2006. South Carolina adopted a gift ban after a federal investigation into corruption in 1990 resulted in more than 27 convictions or guilty pleas involving 17 state legislators. That ban, though, allows companies that employ lobbyists to give limited gifts to lawmakers.
In 1993, the Kentucky Legislature banned most lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions after the FBI nabbed nearly two dozen lawmakers and lobbyists on corruption charges. Florida lawmakers banned gifts in 2005 after several lobbyist-related scandals.
In Georgia, the call for reform began after then-Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, resigned in 2009 after his wife told an Atlanta television station that Richardson had an affair with a lobbyist. The movement gained momentum after revelations of lobbyist-funded trips and tickets for lawmakers. The AJC reported, for example, that lobbyists paid $17,000 for Ralston to visit Europe over Thanksgiving 2010.
Kay Godwin, with Georgia Conservatives in Action, said she believed Ralston was sincere and added that she was "delighted" to work with him and other leaders.
"I think we have good guys in Georgia," Godwin said. "We respect their opinions. They respect ours. Out of both we can work together."
William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said he was "cautiously optimistic."
"It's a pleasant surprise and a move I would absolutely applaud and welcome the speaker's change of heart on the issue and hope he's really committed to moving it forward," he said.
Some lobbyists also applauded.
"I'm glad the speaker has finally come around," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "It sure won't hurt in leveling the playing field. I think it will improve the tone of the place."
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