Georgia speaker unveils sweeping ethics legislation

Fancy steak dinners and box seats to ballgames paid for by lobbyists would go the way of Capitol spittoons under sweeping ethics legislation unveiled Tuesday by House Speaker David Ralston.

The Blue Ridge Republican’s plans to overhaul the state’s ethics regulations was long-awaited, but they have already drawn arrows from critics who claim his bills would stifle free speech without limiting special-interest influence.

Ralston’s proposals would ban most lobbyist spending on individual legislators while expanding the definition of a lobbyist to include many of the unpaid issue advocates who haunt the Capitol. It also would restore rule-making power to the state ethics commission and increase reporting of campaign contributions.

“It’s going to be a different way of doing business around here, no question,” Ralston said. “It’s going to be a different culture.”

Ralston’s arrival at this moment marks an important shift in state government. Georgia is one of only three states in the nation that do not restrict lobbyists’ gifts to legislators.

Three years ago, Ralston led efforts to adopt the last major change in state ethics laws, boosting penalties for those who file reports late and increasing the disclosure of lobbyist gifts.

A champion of the idea that transparency is the key to ethics, he had long said that caps and bans don’t work. Yet, he also found himself subject to the same criticism that prompted calls to limit lobbyists’ influence. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2011 that Ralston and his family had taken a $17,000 lobbyist-funded trip to Europe the previous Thanksgiving to research high-speed trains.

Ralston said Tuesday that a pair of referendums last summer convinced him the public wants change. Republican and Democratic voters in July overwhelming supported nonbinding referendums that called for limits on lobbyists’ largess at the Gold Dome.

Tuesday, the speaker, flanked by his top lieutenants, said his proposals exceed “gimmicks cloaked as reform” proposed by others. His package includes two bills: One deals with the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship, and the other would require lawmakers to file an additional campaign finance report within the first five days of the annual legislative session.

But not everyone is onboard with the proposals. William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, which has advocated for a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, said Ralston’s ban isn’t really a ban.

“It’s just not a good bill,” Perry said.

The House bill includes exemptions on the gift ban for caucuses, committees and subcommittees. A subcommittee could be just one or two lawmakers.

“It’s nowhere near a gift ban,” Perry said.

Tea party activists, who together with Common Cause have become formidable allies for ethics changes, agreed with Perry that Ralston’s lobbyist definitions amount to a “First Amendment tax.”

Atlanta Tea Party Chairwoman Julianne Thompson said the bill would require volunteer activists to pay $300 to register as lobbyists. “This legislation is a slap in the face to citizens,” she said.

Kay Godwin, a longtime Republican activist and founder of Georgia Conservatives in Action, said she has traveled to the Capitol for more than 20 years at her own expense because she “cares about good government.”

“They have forgotten they work for us, and since when does the employee charge a fee to the employer to speak to each other?” Godwin said.

During his news conference earlier, however, Ralston said his intent is not to prevent average Georgians from speaking to power.

“We’re not trying to catch citizens who come down here because they feel passionate about an issue, come on a limited basis,” he said. “… That’s not who we’re trying to get at. There are people out there. We see them every day who lobby on a myriad of issues.”

An impassioned and occasionally angry Ralston, while acknowledging that his proposals are needed to ensure public trust, defended the character of his fellow House members, whom he described as “good, decent, honorable men and women.”

“Their reputations are something I don’t take lightly,” he said, “and I take offense, and I don’t apologize for that, at those who question their integrity and trample on their good names to advance their own agendas.”

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said she has not been able to fully study Ralston’s plan, but she said she had no major complaints on her first read. Unlike Perry, however, she offered particular support to Ralston’s effort to get at the “core issue of who is a lobbyist and what are they doing at the Capitol.”

Like Ralston, Abrams said a ban was preferable to the $100 cap adopted by the Senate earlier this month.

“When you put in artificial caps, they don’t capture the people you are trying to get to,” she said. “How do you get to the people who have never come to the table and have never been the legitimate part of the system they should be.”

Depending on what, exactly, his broader definition of lobbyist means, Ralston’s bill would put Georgia squarely in the mainstream of states in how they deal with this issue. In some ways it’s tougher than most, since it would ban even the smallest expenditure made by a lobbyist, right down to a cup of coffee.

The bill includes exemptions common to many states that already have caps or bans on lobbyists’ gifts. If passed into law, Ralston’s ban would not affect the large receptions sponsored by various groups and companies during the legislative session or group outings such as committee dinners where lobbyists pick up the bill.

The ban also would not include the summer beach conventions put on by professional associations that legislative leaders often attend. Ralston said the associations can continue to pay for travel, food, drink and lodging, but any recreational activities at those conventions — such as rounds of golf – would be at the legislator’s personal expense.

The state Senate earlier this month set a $100 cap on lobbyists’ gifts to its members through a change in the chamber’s rules. Those rules, however, do not carry the weight of laws and include several loopholes.

The new Senate cap does not allow a senator to accept an individual gift worth more than $100.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the leader of the Senate, said he was proud of the Senate’s action and called its rule change a “first step in an ongoing dialogue.” House proposals, he said, “will certainly be a big part of that discussion.”

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