Last year, lawmakers slapped a $75 cap on the value of gifts lobbyists could give them. This year they’re figuring out a way to get around it.
House Bill 142, which was cobbled together in secret and passed on the final day of the 2013 legislative session, was hailed as historic for placing the first-ever limits on lobbying spending. But the bill has a number of exceptions, including one that removes the cap for any caucus approved by the House or Senate ethics committees.
The House ethics committee, unable even to come up with a working definition of “caucus,” has approved just three caucuses, all well-known groups that have a history at the Capitol. The Senate, however, has been more expansive.
In a meeting last month, the Senate Ethics Committee approved 16 caucuses, including the Lake Lanier Caucus, a caucus of University of Georgia graduates (and supporters), and a Senate Republican Leadership Caucus, which comprises just the top GOP leaders in the Senate. Under the Senate’s definition of caucus, every senator would belong to at least two caucuses.
Under HB 142, lobbyists may spend as much as they want when hosting a caucus. Typically lobbyists disclose those gifts as a single expense to the group, rather than listing individual legislators by name. The result masks from the public who actually attended the gathering.
“It strongly suggests trying to get the Legislature to rein itself in on lobbyist gifts is a shell game in Georgia,” said Wyc Orr, a former lawmaker and vice chairman of Common Cause Georgia’s board. “They control not only the legislation but its application as well as its interpretation which is an inescapable conflict of interest.”
The Senate communications staff was unable to produce membership rosters for the 16 approved caucuses, but Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough, chairman of the Senate committee said they are “real caucuses.”
“We didn’t approve anything that hadn’t existed before this year began. These are all caucuses from the past,” he said.
On the House side, Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said some of the groups approved by the Senate are unknown to him.
“Some of these I’ve never heard of,” he said, saying the number of the caucuses now free to ignore the $75 cap is “very troubling.”
A 3-person caucus: the governors’ guys
The reforms were intended to limit how much lobbyists could spend on individual legislators, bringing a halt to expensive dinners lobbyists traditionally bought for powerful lawmakers. But the Senate Ethics Committee has approved a large number of very small caucuses.
For instance, the committee gave a blanket exemption to approve delegations for every county in the state as “caucuses.” Many areas of the state have just one senator and one representative.
It also approved a caucus made up of Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor leaders: Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton; Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling; and Jeffares.
“A caucus, if you look at Webster’s dictionary, is a group of two or more people with the same interests, so we added that one,” Jeffares explained. “Somebody in the caucus – the floor leader – wrote a letter so we put it on the list.”
Such small caucuses could easily provide a legal end run around the $75 individual cap. Not everyone in a caucus must attend a dinner for the exemption to apply because the law states that a lobbyist need only “invite” the group’s members.
Marshall Guest, spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said no more caucuses will be approved on the House side this session. Most caucuses have both House and Senate members, but no one seems to know what happens when a caucus is approved in one chamber but not the other.
“That’s a good question,” Wilkinson said.
“I can’t answer that question,” Jeffares echoed.
Making it up as they go along
Lawmakers want the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, formerly known as the state ethics commission, to clear up the confusion by writing rules governing the new ethics law. The commission has an attorney drawing up rules, but it will be months before they are ready.
In the absence of clarity, lobbyists and lawmakers are making the rules up as they go along. Delegations and more traditional caucuses starting accepting meals from lobbyists in January without waiting for the ethics committees’ approval, leaving lobbyists to figure out how to report it.
- Elizabeth “Betsy” Bates, a lobbyist for Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale, bought lunch on Feb. 10 for the Clayton County delegation, disclosing a total cost of $76.63. She then amended her filing, listing the delegation’s two senators and seven representatives by name with a cost of $8.51 each.
- The DeKalb County delegation was fed twice in February ahead of official recognition as a caucus. On Feb. 3, the Georgia Municipal Association spent $152 for lunch on the group. Two weeks later, Grady Health System and DeKalb Regional Health System paid $376.23 feeding the DeKalb lawmakers.
- On Feb. 4, Ed McGill, the longtime lobbyist for the state alcohol dealers, reported spending $191.70 on a luncheon for Senate leaders, disclosing them as a group rather than as individual lawmakers. The Senate leadership “caucus” was approved by the Senate Ethics Committee three weeks later. McGill notes that while he sponsored the event, he “did not attend.” He also described himself as a co-sponsor, but no other lobbyist reported their sponsorship of the event.
- On Feb. 18, lobbyists representing SCANA Energy, the car dealers and the state petroleum wholesalers split the cost of a $922.68 lunch for the Legislative Rural Caucus. That caucus was approved to receive uncapped lobbying gifts – two days later.
‘Certainly, lobbyists have been helpful’
Republicans, who control both chambers, have called the shots in lobbying reform, but Democrats have not be shy in applying the exemption. A rushed meeting of the House Ethics Committee was called last month largely to approve an exemption for the Democrat-heavy Legislative Black Caucus.
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, has pushed for the ethics committee’s to give “safe harbor” to delegations and caucuses that have been accepting catered meals this session even without approval. Much of the spending has been done to provide buffet-style luncheons to caucuses in multi-purpose rooms inside the Capitol.
“If every person had to go out and get lunch every single day – I think it’s a utilitarian issue,” Abrams said. “Certainly, lobbyists have been helpful.”
Abrams said the new law is complicated and things are moving fast this session as lawmakers rush to complete their business and run for re-election.
“If the law says (the caucus meals) can’t happen, I think legislators can adapt to that,” she said.