Senate passes ethics rule, maintains restriction on public complaints

Unmatched coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution offers the largest and most experienced team covering this year’s General Assembly session, which opened Monday. Nearly 20 reporters, editors and photographers make up the team, which will track the state’s House of Representatives and Senate through a 40-day session.

The state Senate took the historic step Monday to set a $100 cap on lobbyists’ gifts to its members. With enough loopholes, however, the new rule still allows many of the same free steak dinners and sports outings senators have enjoyed for years.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, derided the Senate rule as a gimmick. He promised a tough ethics bill in his own chamber within the next two weeks.

The one-upmanship defined a testy beginning to the new 40-day legislative session. It also set the stage for a kind of duel, in which each chamber tries to best define ethics reform under a Gold Dome beset by lobbyists and special interests.

“Today is the day we begin to keep faith with people in Georgia,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has led a push for ethics reform since taking office in 2011.

Georgia is one of only three states in the nation that do not restrict lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. 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.

Monday’s Senate vote, which passed 42-12, is a first step in what ethics watchdogs hope is a march toward real change, although it is notable as much for what it isn’t as what it is.

The Senate gift cap is the first time restrictions have been placed on lobbyists making gifts to members of the General Assembly. Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly supported a cap in nonbinding referendums held during the July 31 primaries.

The cap passed Monday, however, is not a bill, and it will not become law. Nor does it apply to House members. Instead, senators agreed to voluntarily include it in their new rules governing their chamber over the next two years, which is the usual legislative cycle in Georgia.

The new cap does not allow a senator to accept an individual gift worth more than $100, including a private dinner, Atlanta Falcons ticket or golf outing so popular in years past. It also does not allow lobbyists to give a one-time group gift collectively worth more than $100.

But gifts worth more than $100 may be made to an entire committee or subcommittee — a loophole that caused Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, to point out that committee meetings are “where the real influence happens.” The cap does not apply to family members or Senate staff.

Also exempt from the new rule are memberships or subscriptions related to public office, and registration costs and “reasonable” travel expenses for out-of-state junkets, as long as they are related to a senator’s official duties.

“This is what happens when you play around with gimmicks and are more interested in public stunts than real reform,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who said last year that he would rather see a full ban on lobbyist gifts. If the public believed what the Senate did was true reform, he said, “I’ve got some oceanfront property in Blue Ridge to sell you.”

Not all senators would disagree. Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, followed Monday’s vote by filing his own bill, Senate Bill 36, banning lobbyists’ gifts “to any public officer.”

The Senate rules containing the cap also continue to ban members of the public from making ethics complaints directly to the Senate even if they believe someone is breaking the rules.

That ban came into play last year after a private citizen’s complaint against Sen. Don Balfour prompted the Senate Ethics Committee to pursue its own complaint against the powerful Republican from Snellville. Balfour was eventually fined $5,000 for filing inaccurate travel reports to claim expenses. He was also told to repay about $350 to the state for the lapses.

Penalties for violating the new Senate rule will be at the discretion of the Senate Ethics Committee, which is expected to continue its work during the session. Penalties could be anything from a fine to public censure.

Ethics watchdogs are pushing this year for an ethics law that would make the cap, and other restrictions, permanent — more legislation, including in the Senate, is expected to be filed. They applauded the new Senate cap, even if they didn’t think it was perfect.

“We ordered chocolate cake. We’ve been given apple sauce,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “But today is a big step forward.”