Senate passes big ethics bill

In-depth coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the push for ethics reform every step of the way with investigative reporting looking into how our public officials interact with lobbyists, where the system fails and how other states have done it better. As the Legislature wrestles with how to overhaul the system, the AJC will continue to provide in-depth coverage you will not find anywhere else.

The state Senate approved historic ethics reforms Friday to limit the influence of political lobbyists across Georgia. Now comes the hard part: finding common ground with the state House, which has offered a substantially different version of reforms.

The unanimous vote came with only three working days left in this year’s annual legislative session. Both chambers are expected to appoint a joint committee to negotiate, maybe as soon as Monday, with no guarantee they will reach a compromise before the session ends Thursday.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, remained unimpressed, as senators Friday called parts of his original House Bill 142 “opaque” and “shameful,” and celebrated their version as the best for Georgians.

“We’re passing the strongest ethics reforms that have ever been under the Gold Dome in this building,” said Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who carried the revised bill in his chamber. “It ensures every elected official in Georgia will be under the strictest ethical standards this state has ever had.”

The original version of HB 142 would ban most gifts from lobbyists to individual lawmakers. The Senate instead would impose a $100 cap, without limits on how many gifts could be given. The Senate’s bill also would eliminate most of the exemptions in Ralston’s plan allowing unlimited spending on groups of officials.

The Senate version strips from HB 142 an expanded lobbyist registration requirement favored by the speaker that would have affected unpaid advocates. Besides addressing loopholes, that’s one of the elements that is drawing cheers from ethics supporters, who largely back the Senate version of the bill.

Those supporters collectively call themselves the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, including Common Cause Georgia, the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and Georgia Watch. After the vote, they celebrated with thumbs-up in the Capitol halls while acknowledging their fight was not yet finished.

Just how unfinished could be seen as supporters celebrated: The House had already adjourned by the time the Senate voted on its version of HB 142.

“They quit early!” said Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody. Added Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle: “It looks like they got a little bit frightened.”

Ralston, who watched the Senate vote in his office, appreciated the humor. But not the bill and the looming deadline.

“The serious part is this issue’s been out there for months,” Ralston said. “We introduced the only ethics bill this session when the calendar still said January. We went through multiple meetings, we spent a lot of time to get a good bill, a credible bill. We passed a bill out of the House on Feb. 25, which was now almost one month ago. And they take up that bill during rush-hour traffic on Friday afternoon on Day 37? The clock is becoming a factor. I’m seriously disappointed in the timing.”

The Senate version of HB 142 requires every public body — from a local school board on up — to draft a policy setting a limit no greater than $100 on lobbyists’ gifts or accept a complete ban. Senators believe that would allow representatives to vote for the bill and accept a “true” ban on gifts by simply not setting up a policy. The Senate already has a rule with a $100 cap on gifts to its own members.

It also rejects Ralston’s contention that unpaid advocates should register as lobbyists, if they come to the Capitol more than five days annually on behalf of an organization and press for legislative action. And it bans foreign travel for lawmakers, limiting domestic travel to “official duties,” and bars lobbyists from paying for spouses, family members or staff who tag along on a trip.

Additionally, the Senate version eliminates loopholes for committees, caucuses and delegations so that they, too, must fall at least within the $100-per-official cap. Only events to which the entire General Assembly is invited, like the annual Wild Hog Supper, would be exempt.

But Ralston said that “event” exemption “would allow unlimited spending.”

“It really goes beyond the loophole — it’s a sinkhole for lobbyists’ spending,” he said. “It’s time we leave the personal egos out of the way and the special interests and get down to see if we’re going to work out a serious bill in a very short amount of time we have left.”