Ethics reform could cost citizen advocates

Eleazor Valiente doesn’t resemble most Gold Dome lobbyists. He wasn’t wearing a fancy suit or shiny shoes.

Oh, and he’s only 17.

But Valiente and the hundreds of other charter school students and teachers who rallied at the Capitol on Thursday could be considered lobbyists under ethics legislation proposed this week by Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. Those charter advocates, and the nurses, Realtors, and myriad other groups who visit the Capitol every year, would likely be required to pay $320 and file reports for the next year if they speak to more than just their own personal representatives.

Ralston wants to greatly broaden the definition of a lobbyist not to keep out the public, but to address illegal lobbying. Supporters said they have heard the complaints and said they will unveil a potential fix next week. Unregistered lobbying has long been a problem at the Capitol, and Ralston’s bill attempts to put an end to it. But in his effort to force more lobbyists into the system, many are concerned he’s also unfairly penalizing volunteers and citizen activists who get swept up with the scofflaws.

As written, the bill could require many, such as the 25 students from Kennesaw’s TLE Christian Academy rallying at the Capitol on Thursday, to register as lobbyists. The seniors have recently been studying the Boston Tea Party and the right to assemble. They wanted to talk to more than one or two legislators, which could be tricky under the new proposal. Under Ralston’s bill, a lobbyist is anyone who provides “services” for an organization in an attempt to influence lawmakers, whether for pay or as a volunteer.

“It would hinder most people, like me,” said Valiente, a TLE Christian Academy senior. “Many people have voices, but if you have to register and pay, it’s like saying, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

The 17-year-old said he wouldn’t mind registering if it didn’t involve $320 in fees.

“I’d have to have a job,” he said, laughing.

Ralston’s bill, House Bill 142, also would ban lobbyist gifts to individual lawmakers and restore power to the state ethics commission. It received its first hearing Thursday in a House subcommittee. At the outset, Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who chaired the panel, promised a rewrite of the bill would be released next week and said the changes specifically will deal with the definition of a lobbyist. And whatever the change, that definition will almost certainly still be greatly expanded. Golick echoed Ralston to say the goal of the bill is not to stifle free speech.

The “intent is not to have a situation where individuals are coming to the Capitol to exercise their right to free speech, their right to petition their government pursuant to the First Amendment, to have that threatened or imperiled in any way, or make that more difficult,” Golick said. “Our responsibility, if anything, is to make that easier.”

Some of the sharpest criticism of the speaker’s proposals has come from tea party activists and Common Cause Georgia. While they have been among the most vocal advocates for a cap on lobbyist spending, such activists could be forced to register as lobbyists under Ralston’s legislation.

“The Capitol is the people’s house,” Atlanta Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley told the House panel. Dooley is not paid by the tea party but has become a regular visitor to the Capitol and regular commenter on public policy. Despite speakers’ criticism Thursday of the lobbyist registration section of the legislation, most praised the House’s attempt to limit lobbyist influence.

“We are your landlords,” she said. “How dare you tell us that you’re not welcome and put a closed sign on the people’s House. That is unconscionable.”

But others found Dooley’s ire confusing.

“I find it very ironic that the people lobbying the hardest for caps on lobbyist spending are the very same people fighting against any requirements for them to register as lobbyists,” said Trip Martin, one of the most influential and senior lobbyists in the Capitol.

Some volunteers who come to the Capitol to talk to lawmakers are a little closer to lobbyists than others. Barbara Knowles, executive director of Cherokee County-based Citizens for Having Options in Children’s Education, said she has been to the Capitol several times over the past two years urging lawmakers to support charter schools.

She was a big supporter of Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment allowing the state to approve charter schools, and she was back at the Capitol on Thursday to protect those gains.

“The fight is not over,” she said. She intended to “talk to as many lawmakers as I can.”

Although she’s an unpaid director of a nonprofit organization, Knowles likely would have to register as a lobbyist under Ralston’s plan.

“I would not have a problem doing it, but I think it is not necessary,” she said. “I will do what it takes to get my voice heard. They are elected officials and we are the people and they need to hear us.”

Rick Thompson, the former director of the state ethics commission, said Ralston’s bill is solid.

“I understand what they’re trying to do, and I fully embrace it,” he said. “There are a lot of people that are circumventing the definition of a lobbyist. They need to register.”

Even those students, he said, should register if they go from lawmaker to lawmaker advocating a position.

“If you are wandering the halls and you’re talking about legislation, you should be registered and people should know you’re there,” said Thompson, who now advises elected officials on following ethics laws.