Ethics reform passes with push from Deal

In-depth coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the largest and most experienced team of journalists at the Capitol. Four of them reported the accompanying story throughout the session’s final day Thursday: Chris Joyner, Kristina Torres, Aaron Gould Sheinin and Greg Bluestein.

Ethics reform

House Bill 142 limiting gifts lobbyists may give to public officials passed both chambers late Thursday. Here’s a glance at what the bill would do:

  • Limit gifts of food, beverages, travel and lodging to $75 or less per lobbyist.

  • Ban sports and entertainment tickets as gifts, but officials may purchase them at face value from lobbyists.
  • Ban "recreational or leisure activities" such as golf.
  • Allow lobbyists to pay for annual committee dinners and events for caucuses, but not subcommittees or local delegations.
  • Anyone receiving pay or reimbursement of more than $250 while attempting to influence legislation must register as a lobbyist.

Lobbying reform came in just under the wire Thursday, accompanied by threats and late-night negotiations and plenty of exemptions.

With unanimous votes in both the House and Senate, lawmakers hailed the state’s first-ever limitations on gifts to public officials as meaningful change.

“There were a lot of cynics and skeptics who felt like at the end of the day that we would not be able to do a bill, that our efforts would fall apart,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “But we did get a bill, and I think it’s a good bill.”

House Bill 142 caps gifts from registered lobbyists to government officials at $75, which means lobbyists can continue to ply lawmakers with meals, cocktails and travel as long as the tab for any single expenditure does not exceed that amount. But the bill is carefully worded to cap expenditures for an “individual lobbyist,” opening the door for multiple lobbyists to spend hundreds of dollars on a single lawmaker.

For example, could a single lawmaker be treated to a $150 dinner by two lobbyists?

Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, tried to explain how it works, but clarified little.

“It is meant to be per dinner, per occurrence, a one-time venture,” he said. Then, he added, “It is $75 per occurrence, per lobbyist.”

The cap is one of the more forgiving in the nation among states that allow such spending, but it does mark the first time any limits have been placed on the practice in Georgia.

The bill might not have passed but for some political arm-twisting from someone who watched the debate mostly from the sidelines: Gov. Nathan Deal.

As negotiations dragged on past late Wednesday night and into early Thursday morning, Deal met with House and Senate leaders and urged them to compromise on ethics so work could continue on the budget. If they could not agree, Deal threatened to call them back in to a special session.

“We were running out of time, and if we ran out of time and didn’t have time for conferees to meet on the budget, then it appeared that there would be no alternative other than call a special session, which I did not want to do,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t know if that’s what got them going, but whatever it was, I’m glad it did.”

Ethics reform advocates, including politically disparate groups such as Common Cause Georgia and the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, cheered the bill as a good step, albeit not a perfect one.

Deal echoed the praise, faintly.

“We all have to judge it not necessarily by the words on the bill now but how it’s implemented in the real world,” he said. “I have every reason to believe that this is the step in the right direction, but it may not be the final step.”

Most reported lobbyist gifts go to state lawmakers and include thousands of meals, free sports and concert tickets, and travel. While the final compromise was struck in private, reformers spent years applying very public pressure to lawmakers to place some limits on gifts, even getting nonbinding questions on both party primary ballots last summer.

News of the deal broke shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday, but rank-and-file members, advocates and the media did not see the actual bill until late in the day.

Given the gulf between the House and Senate proposals, it is somewhat remarkable that lawmakers found agreement before the end of the session.

The original House bill, sponsored by Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, would have eliminated most gifts to individual lawmakers, but included numerous exceptions. The Senate preferred a $100 cap on expenditures with fewer exceptions — essentially a tougher version of a Senate rule passed on the first day of the session in January.

Exceptions to the $75 cap include committee dinners, dinners for caucuses and lobbyist-funded travel, with some limitations. Meals for smaller groups like subcommittees and local delegations are not exempt and fall under the $75 cap.

Another potentially significant loophole is how the bill treats lawyers who appear before a public body. Current law allows lawyers to escape registering as lobbyists if they appear “in an adversarial proceeding,” such as a courtroom or an administrative hearing. The bill changes the law to allow lawyers not to register as lobbyists as long as they are appearing on behalf of a client, a change professional lobbyists immediately seized on as ripe for abuse.

When questioned, Mullis, the Senate Rules chairman, said the “intention” of the bill is to differentiate between lobbyists and lawyers, not allow lawyers to evade registration.

The bill does lower the bar on registration in other ways.

As part of the deal, volunteers would not have to register as lobbyists unless they receive $250 or more in salary or expenses from an organization. Ralston pushed to expand lobbyist registration, angering advocates who had agitated for gift limits. Most of the reform advocates appeared satisfied with requiring registration for people who are paid or receive some other financial compensation, even at such a small amount.

“Is it a perfect bill? No. But we are happy with the changes to the definition of lobbyists,” said Julianne Thompson, a tea party activist who advocated for an overhaul. “We know that Senate leadership went to the mat for us. We know they stood strong and were committed to making sure the First Amendment rights of conservative advocates were protected. We will never forget that.”

The agreement is a reversal for Ralston, who for months derided a cap as a “gimmick” and poked fun at the Senate rule, calling their cap a “visor” because it covered so little. On Thursday, he was relieved a deal had been struck.

“Sometimes I think it’s more important that you do something rather than nothing. We moved the ball down the field,” he said. “For the first time, we do have a limitation on spending, and I think that’s important. I don’t get my way all the time. We’ll fight another day and keep moving the ball in that direction.”

Ralston presented the bill in the House personally.

“I was absolutely committed we were going to do a bill this session,” he said. “I believed it was important we do that to keep the faith with the people of Georgia.”

Following Ralston’s speech, House members did not muster a single question, passing it 169-0.

The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate about 30 minutes earlier, with all 56 senators casting votes. But while the chamber broke into spontaneous applause upon passage, one of the Senate’s strongest ethics advocates warned that the Legislature’s work was not over.

“It’s not everything we need to do, but it’s definitely putting points on the board,” said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has led a push for ethics reform since taking office in 2011. “Tonight, let’s put this one through the uprights, but let’s be prepared to come back next year to score a touchdown on ethics reform.”