Governor 'trusts' lawmakers will seek ethics reform

"Since the day I took office, my staff and I have operated under a stringent executive order on ethics," Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement this week to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I trust the Legislature to pass legislation that applies to its branch of state government."

The governor left open whether lawmakers should seek a ban on lobbyist gifts, or a cap.

Deal's comments came as work is just beginning, kick-started by Georgia voters who overwhelmingly passed nonbinding questions on the July 31 primary ballots for both Republicans and Democrats about ending unlimited spending by lobbyists on gifts.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who rebuffed calls to limit lobbyists' gifts over the past two years, told the AJC on Friday he would seek a total ban. Previously, he'd said Georgia had strong disclosure laws and that voters were the ultimate judge, making a gift cap unnecessary.

Lobbyists under current state 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.

Some ethics advocates would like to see Ralston act now.

"I'm calling on him to show people he's serious by immediately declining all gifts from lobbyists," said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, who joined groups including Georgia Watch and the Georgia Tea Party Patriots to push for ethics reform at the Capitol. "He does not need to wait for legislation to lead by example."

That the Capitol's leadership is having to come to terms with this new direction was on display. House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said in a statement he was committed to "full, open and immediate" disclosure of lobbyists' gifts, and that it was legislators' duty to respond to voters' wishes.

But he added that the current system worked well even though "media-driven misreporting makes it appear that it has not."

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said her caucus supported "meaningful ethics reform," which could also cap travel reimbursement and expand disclosure requirements to agency heads.

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he was committed to working with lawmakers to strengthen Georgia's ethics laws and improve public confidence in their elected officials.

According to Ralston, a working group will be formed over the next several weeks with a goal of having a gift ban bill ready for consideration when the full General Assembly meets in January.

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. Ralston said the trip helped him understand how European countries successfully merged rail and roads with economic development.

Ralston, who by this time last year had received $12,415 worth of gifts, has accepted noticeably fewer gifts this year, a review of state records showed. Those he has accepted were also worth less.

Between Jan. 1 and July 31, lobbyists this year reported spending $6,073 on Ralston, mostly for food and travel.

Delta Air Lines gave him a membership to its private Sky Club lounges worth $450. Two lobbyists chipped in $62.15 each to send Ralston to the Braves' April 13 home opener versus the Milwaukee Brewers. He also got a $4.50 package of Oreo cookies.

All in all, the worth of gifts this year has averaged $61. By this time last year, they had averaged $181.

Even with the lower total this year, Ralston is still among the top members of the General Assembly as a target for lobbyists' generosity.

Deal on his first day in office in January 2011 signed a lobbyist gift ban for state employees, although he had to remind department heads to follow the rules after the AJC reported in May that dozens of state officials had taken thousands of dollars worth of tickets, meals and travel from special interests.