Ethics changes in Georgia Senate could include $100 gift cap

State Senate leaders said Friday that they are prepared to begin next year’s legislative session with a self-imposed limit on lobbyists’ gifts, including a $100 gift cap.

It is the first step toward what could become a permanent limit on the influence of lobbyists at the state Capitol, at least in the Senate. Yet to be decided is whether the cap will be introduced by Senate rule — which has no bearing on the state House — or as proposed legislation that could affect the entire General Assembly. They could also do both.

“Unlimited (lobbyist) giving is an untenable situation,” said Senate President Pro Tem-elect David Shafer, R-Duluth, the chamber’s highest-ranking member.

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.

A draft proposal now before the Senate ethics study committee would outline the new ethics parameters, including defining what a gift is — a private dinner worth more than $100, for example — and is not.

Among exemptions are memberships or subscriptions related to public office, and registration costs and “reasonable” travel expenses to attend out-of-state junkets, as long as they are related to a senator’s official duties.

The move to curb lobbyists’ gifts won immediate praise from ethics watchdogs.

“That’s leadership by example,” said Kelli Persons with the League of Women Voters of Georgia. The league is one of several groups that have pushed especially hard over the past two years to strengthen ethics laws and regulations at the Capitol.

Most have banded together to form the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, including Common Cause Georgia, the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and Georgia Watch. They have said that allowing unlimited gift-giving by lobbyists gives at least the appearance of undue influence on legislators at the expense of the public. They want it stopped.

Ammunition for their cause came this year when Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly supported a cap in nonbinding referendums held during the July 31 primaries. The House also has an ethics study committee and is expected to issue its own proposals early next year.

“Even though some of the perceptions may not be totally true, in a lot of voters’ minds, perception is reality,” said Debbie Dooley, a tea party activist and member of the ethics reform alliance. “Ethics is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s a good government issue.”

Additionally, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, filed Senate Resolution 7 earlier this month asking that voters be allowed to change the Georgia Constitution with a mandate to fund the state’s ethics commission. The proposal seeks to create a permanent funding source for Georgia’s watchdog over lobbyists and lawmakers.

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