The House Ethics Committee agreed Thursday to allow three established caucuses to exempt themselves from the state’s new rules on lobbyist gifts.
In a perfunctory meeting, the committee voted exemptions for the Legislative Rural Caucus, the Georgia Women Legislative Caucus and Georgia Black Legislative Caucus. The approval came just an hour ahead of the black caucus’ annual Heritage Dinner, which is underwritten by lobbyists, some of whom were nervous about supporting the event without a nod from the committee.
Last year the Legislature passed the first-ever caps on lobbying spending, slapping a $75 limit on such gifts, but lawmakers wrote in numerous exemptions. One key exception is that caucuses can accept gifts of any size, as long as they get House and Senate approval.
In Thursday’s vote, the committee agreed to give retroactive approval to the three caucuses for any lobbying gifts they had accepted since Jan. 1. Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said he knows other groups are meeting and accepting catered meals from lobbyists but they have not asked to be formally recognized.
Much about the law is unclear to both lawmakers and lobbyists. The state ethics commission, which regulates the lobbying community, reportedly is writing rules to clarify the law, but Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge told lawmakers earlier this week that those rules likely will not be ready until after the legislative session.
For instance, can unapproved caucuses meet and accept lobbyists’ gifts as long as the cost does not exceed the $75-per-person cap?
“We have not been asked for a clarification on that,” LaBerge said.
Some of the confusion appears to be willful. This week LaBerge said she has yet to receive a request for an official opinion on any aspect of the new law from anyone — lobbyist or lawmaker.
One question the House and Senate committees will have to address is whether delegations — groups of lawmakers from a specific geographic area that meet to discuss local issues — are exempt. Wilkinson said the committee would accept requests from “delegation/caucuses.”
“A delegation is a caucus,” he said.
Some rural, sparsely populated areas have delegations of just one representative and one senator. Approving such small groups would make the $75 cap virtually meaningless.
“That’s one of the things we are working through,” Wilkinson said.
While there are many ways around it, some officials are finding the cap can bring some ugly surprises. Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens said he was unaware that a Feb. 4 dinner meeting with the Georgia Credit Union League may have resulted in a violation of the cap.
The lobbyist for the organization reported that the dinner for Hudgens and his spouse cost $189.90. Insurance Department spokesman Glenn Allen said Hudgens was not aware of the cost of the dinner.
“Having seen the report, and out of an abundance of caution, he has decided to reimburse the group for the entire cost of his attendance,” Allen said.