Top lawmaker will push for more limits on lobbyists

ATHENS -- The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said Monday he would try once more to limit lobbyist spending on lawmakers despite House leadership opposition to the idea.

Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, still sees a need for a ban or cap on lobbyists' ability to wine and dine lawmakers. He also would seek a "cooling-off period" that prohibited employees of the executive branch from going to work as lobbyists for at least a year.

"We're still looking at the gift limits," Willard said as lawmakers gathered for a University of Georgia conference in advance of January's new legislative session. Willard spoke to reporters as incoming legislators received an in-depth review of state ethics and campaign finance laws.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Atlanta, a panelist in the review session, said he doesn't believe that gift bans or caps work.

"If a ban worked I would have included it," Wilkinson said of a package of changes to state ethics laws that lawmakers approved in this past legislative session.

While Willard and others, particularly Democrats, pushed for at least a cap of $100 on lobbyist spending per lawmaker, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, Wilkinson and others said transparency was more important.

Under the new law, lobbyists will have to file disclosure reports every two weeks while lawmakers are in session.

Wilkinson spoke with many of his counterparts in other states that have caps or bans, and he said their reaction was negative regarding legislative control.

"While it's well intentioned, what everybody says happens is it leads to non-reporting and underground lobbying," Wilkinson said.

Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton, is a member of the Senate Ethics Committee and spoke to freshman lawmakers on Monday, and he was in agreement with Wilkinson.

"I think we need to take a look at where we're at," Crosby said. "We need to have hearings and hear testimony, and then see if we want to make changes."

Lawmakers this past spring made the first significant changes to the state's ethics laws in several years. After much debate, the new law gave the State Ethics Commission broader power and tightened reporting requirements for lobbyists and lawmakers. It increased the fines for anyone who violates the law and for the first time outlined a specific ban on sexual harassment and the use of state agencies or authorities to harass someone.

However, the bill did not address campaign contributions or lobbyist spending, something government watchdogs sought. Instead, Ralston said transparency was more effective.

Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said there's a chance ethics could become a major issue again in the coming legislative session.

"We did some thorough work last year, so I'd be surprised if we did," Peake said.

Newly elected Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, said he probably would support a cap on lobbyist spending, but not an outright ban.

Brockway said the ethics session was helpful, especially after hearing Ethics Commission executive secretary Stacey Kalberman say the commission's role was to insure lawmakers comply with the law, and "they'll take a stand against using the commission for political purposes."

Rep.-elect Yasmine Neal, D-Jonesboro, said she, too, felt familiar with state ethics laws but appreciated the in-depth nature of the seminar.

"Before I do anything I call Ethics," Neal said. "They're very informative, very understanding. I'm hoping every legislator was able to participate."