Senate ready to cap lobbyists’ gifts

The Georgia Senate may approve as soon as Monday a self-imposed limit on lobbyists’ gifts, including a $100 gift cap. Its ethics work may not end there.

Senate leaders signaled Wednesday they are ready to broaden their ethics pursuit at the Capitol to include the state ethics commission, Georgia’s watchdog over lobbyists and lawmakers.

How far they are willing to go to give the commission more teeth is unclear. Members of the Senate ethics study committee seemed most sympathetic to streamlining how locally elected officials report their campaign fundraising and spending, which the commission has overseen since 2010.

“The lesson to take away is the new leadership we have in the Senate, along with the lieutenant governor, is showing that we understand there’s a credibility gap in this state,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has led a push for ethics reform since taking office in 2011. “We’re going to be willing to rein in ourselves and limit ourselves. I think voters should take away from this we heard their message July 31 and we’re responding to it.”

Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly supported a cap in nonbinding referendums held during the July 31 primaries.

Wednesday’s committee meeting was the last before this year’s legislative session begins Monday. Members are finalizing a proposal that outlines new ethics parameters for senators, which include defining what is a gift — a private dinner worth more than $100, for example — and what is not.

Among exemptions 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. The rules would not allow lobbyists to give a group gift collectively worth more than $100.

McKoon said penalties for violating the proposed new rules would be at the discretion of the ethics committee, which is expected to continue its work during the session. Penalties could be anything from a fine to public censure.

The cap is expected to be voted on Monday by the entire Senate as part of a general handbook of rules governing the chamber over the next two years, which is the usual legislative cycle in Georgia.

Also Wednesday, Holly LaBerge, the state ethics commission’s executive secretary, testified before study committee members about the commission’s struggles to police campaign-finance reports and accurately assess fines for candidates or incumbents who file reports late or don’t file them at all.

The commission has suffered a string of budget and staff cuts since 2009, with legislators also stripping the agency of its rule-making authority.

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