Dozens of lawmakers are collecting last-minute campaign checks this week at places like the high-rise Buckhead Club and the staid old Commerce Club, hoping to pack their political war chests before their fund raising light goes off at the Capitol.
State law bans lawmakers from raising money during the legislative session, which begins Monday. This has turned the final week before the session into a nonstop festival of campaign contributions in which legislators take in hundreds of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and other supporters.
Even as the lobbyists hand out checks of $250, $500, $1,000, the legislators will be preparing for a session in which they will discuss whether to cap or ban gifts from lobbyists.
These gifts take the form of free dinners, football tickets, out-of-town trips and the like, and the state currently has no limits on them. Campaign contributions, meanwhile, are usually donations that help candidates pay to win and retain office. Some advocates and lawmakers say campaign money should be part of the ethics debate.
“That (gifts) is not where the influence is. There is too much money in the campaigns,” said Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, the outgoing Senate President Pro Tem and a supporter of lowering donation limits.
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Williams’ replacement on the Senate leadership team, Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, isn’t sure campaign finance should be part of the ethics package.
“Campaign contributions are fundamentally different from gifts,” Shafer said. “Campaign contributions are already limited, subject to disclosure regardless of source and cannot be converted to personal use.”
That’s much the same argument made by one of the leading proponents of lobbyist gift limits, Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus. McKoon has led the fight in the General Assembly for a $100 cap on gifts lobbyists give lawmakers. But he sent out a fund-raising letter to lobbyists, inviting them to attend his event Thursday. The invitation listed giving “levels” up to $2,500.
In the House, Speaker David Ralston is advocating a complete ban on gifts from lobbyists.
Shafer, who serves on a Senate ethics study committee, has long been a prolific fund-raiser. Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle hosted a fundraiser for Shafer and four other Senate leaders at the Buckhead Club on Peachtree Road Wednesday.
Deal is also among the hosts of a fundraiser scheduled for Thursday in Atlanta for Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who is expected to be the chamber’s next Rules Committee chairman.
Both events were put together by his daughter-in-law, Denise Deal, who is the governor’s chief fundraiser and has been hired by more than a dozen lawmakers to raise money for them.
Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman, said Deal attended a fundraiser for his House floor leaders, but his schedule didn’t permit him to attend the Senate events. Robinson noted that Deal hasn’t raised money for his campaign this week.
Deal reported collecting about $446,000 in campaign contributions in the final six months of 2012 and has more than $840,000 in his campaign account. Reports filed with the state ethics commission show the governor has raised more than $3 million in the past two years for his re-election campaign in 2014.
The last-minute fund raising has long been a tradition. Lawmakers took in about $1 million last year just before the session.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, is part of a coalition working on an ethics bill that will include gift limits. Perry said campaign finance should be a “key component” of any ethics legislation lawmakers pass.
“It’s encouraging that we have a (fundraising) blackout period, but it’s tough when all this money is raised right before the legislative session starts and we don’t find out about who gave what … until the session is over,” Perry said.
In non-election years, like 2013, lawmakers don’t have to disclose what lobbyists gave them this week until July.
“I think it causes a horrible perception problem,” he said. “The people in this state have little trust in their government right now. So when officials come together and have campaign fundraisers right before the session, there is a bad perception problem.”