The long road to lobbying reform

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and James Salzer contributed to this report.

In the wee hours of March 28, the final day of the legislative session, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate leaders sat in Cagle’s office with the sinking feeling that ethics reform was doomed.

Negotiations with House Speaker David Ralston had broken down. Ralston, who had publicly committed to passing a reform bill, was holding the budget bill hostage while the ethics bill floundered.

Gov. Nathan Deal had intervened to broker an agreement. But when Cagle suggested that it might not happen that night, the governor issued a warning: If the House and Senate couldn’t pass an ethics bill, Deal was going to drag the entire Legislature back to town for a special session.

Then the governor left.

Looking out of Cagle’s office window, the men saw House Appropriations Chairman Terry England’s car was still in the parking lot. When Ralston left the meeting with Cagle, he said he was going to tell England to go home. If that hadn’t happened, perhaps Ralston was still there.

Cagle and the Senate negotiators decided to give it one more try. They found Ralston and, this time, they found a deal.

Were lawmakers serious about reform?

Many, perhaps most, legislators never viewed complaints about lobbyist gifts as valid. It has been trumped up, they said, by the newspaper and good-government activists who misperceive how the Legislature really works.

The $200 dinners paid by lobbyists, the multiple working trips to Florida beach resorts, the unlimited tickets, drinks, meals, golf outings — none of those things had any real impact on lawmakers' decisions or integrity, they said. Read Ralston's remarks on Feb. 25 as he spoke on the bill before the House voted on it:

“That change will not be a response to actual problems, but it will be an honest and real response to a perception that has been created – rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter – that our current system is no longer acceptable.”

Just a few minutes earlier, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, had spoken of the “perception that lobbyist expenditures influence elected officials.”

The crowning touch came from Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Ambrose, who grieved that House members’ struggle against those who would impugn their ethics was like unto the suffering of Christ.

“Somebody has the perception that we are unethical because we are in politics,” Sims, a funeral director, said. “You know, was Jesus Christ unethical? Everybody said he was. They hung him on the cross.”

Then he brought the analogy home, seeming to paint Ralston as the Christ figure in the ethics battle.

“Let me tell you something, we’ve got someone to thank here for taking this on,” Sims said. “Taking all our ethical problems and everything that has been perceived about this Legislature and taking them on. He happens to be our speaker. He’s taken it on for us.”

Continuing his sermon, Sims went on to praise the entire House as above reproach.

“I want tell you there is not another body anywhere that I feel is as honest as this body is,” he said.

Last November, Sims, a member of the House Higher Education Committee, was one of seven state lawmakers taken on an expense-paid quail hunt in south Georgia by the lobbyist for the Board of Regents. Shortly after his speech, Sims — and 163 other House members — approved Ralston’s bill which would have much such trips illegal in the future.

Far apart from the start

The two chambers staked out their positions on ethics reform early. On Jan. 14, the first day of the session, the Senate had adopted a rule limiting its members to gifts valued at no more than $100.

Ralston laid out his position five months earlier saying he would propose an outright ban on such gifts after voters, in nonbinding ballot questions in the July primaries, overwhelmingly called for lobbying reform. For months, he dismissed caps as unworkable, and when the Senate adopted its cap Ralston quipped that it covered so little they should call it a visor.

The Senate took note — and umbrage. The following day, Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan, waved the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the well of the Senate, calling attention to a story on the Senate rule.

“It didn’t extend to all the branches of government. It was a small thing. I guess it would be what some would call just trying to make a point,” he said. “The speaker of the House derided our attempt to make a point.”

Two weeks later, when he introduced his own bill in the House, Ralston made his point more clearly.

The speaker said his proposed gift ban was not “gimmicks cloaked as reform” — an unambiguous insult to the Senate rule. Much like the Senate rule, Ralston’s bill was loaded with exemptions, but later analysis showed it would reduce common lobbyist spending more than the Senate approach would.

Ralston claimed to be surprised by the negative reaction prompted by his proposal that citizen activists be compelled to register as lobbyists. Why are some people allergic to registration, he wondered aloud.

That provision, more than anything, became a sore point as the bill worked its way through committee, resulting in heated discussions between reform advocates and House members. Advocates successfully convinced key senators that the provision was a “tax” on free speech.

A special Rules subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, massaged the provision, lowering registering fees and waiving some filing requirements. But many volunteer lobbyists, who feared it was directed at them, were no happier.

The Senate (eventually) responds

Senators seethed when Ralston characterized them as weak on ethics. They also waited. For weeks.

From Feb. 25 until March 21, there was no public action on the legislation. Representatives got their pointing fingers ready. If time ran out, it would be the Senate’s fault.

Finally, on Day 36, with five working days remaining in the session, the Senate picked up the bill. In a conference room packed with lobbyists, the Senate Rules Committee unveiled its chamber’s answer to the House’s proposed ban: a $100 cap with few exemptions and no expanded lobbyist registration.

Reformers from Common Cause to the League of Women Voters to tea party groups praised the rewrite, while Ralston called it a “diluted” version of his bill because it would allow public officials to continue to accept individual gifts.

The Senate spent the morning of March 22 – Day 37 of the 40-day session – languidly moving through resolutions, publicly praying and taking moments of “personal privilege.” The chamber adjourned for lunch without taking up any legislation.

HB 142 was second on the agenda when they returned, but passage did not come until around 3:30 p.m. By then the House had already quit for the day, giving its members a head start on Friday traffic. Cagle fired a shot across the Capitol at the empty House, saying the new Senate version of the bill could not be “immediately transmitted” because the House had adjourned early. Senators groaned and booed theatrically.

Looking serious and tilting his head down to the Senate floor, Cagle struck a grave tone.

They could have stuck around to work “on an important issue like this,” he said, his words soaked in disapproval. “Instead, it looks like they got a little bit frightened.”

With such tough talk, compromise seemed far away.

A political all-nighter

When the House and Senate come up with conflicting versions of the same bill, leaders appoint a conference committee — usually three members of the House and three members of the Senate — to work out a compromise.

The conference committee assigned to the lobbying bill never formally met to hash out details of the bill. All that work was done in secret, by individuals conferring far from the public’s eye.

But it was after midnight and the three most powerful politicians in Georgia — Deal, Cagle and Ralston — and their aides, plus a handful of legislators, were still locked in private discussions about the lobbying bill. Officials shuttled back and forth from various offices in the Capitol, getting closer but not anywhere near yes.

According to officials who were present throughout the negotiations, Ralston agreed to drop his proposed ban in favor of a cap.

“The Senate wanted their $100,” said House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, one of the only officials involved who would speak on the record. “The speaker offered $25, because that’s what the governor has for his staff. That didn’t go too good.”

Ralston and the Senate negotiators arrived at the $75 compromise fairly quickly, but Ralston was standing firm on his expansion of lobbyist registration: people who often appear at the Capitol to advocate for legislation, even if they were volunteers from citizens groups like the tea party, must register as lobbyists alongside the professionals.

“The speaker wasn’t going to back off on lobbyist registration,” Meadows said.

But following Deal’s threat of a special session — about as appealing to legislative leaders as a no-Novocaine visit to the dentist — the impasse ended. That’s the way the process works, Meadows said.

“You can’t draw a line in the sand. If you do that somebody is going to embarrass you or beat you up. A lot of the work we do is compromise,” he said. “The speaker, he went in firm on two issues and he compromised on both of them.”

Although word leaked out early on Day 40 that a deal had been reached, it was nearly 12 hours before most rank-and-file members found the bill on their desks.

An hour later, with many in the Capitol hallways still trying to figure out what it said, legislators in both chambers had passed the bill unanimously. In the House, they did so without a moment of debate.

There were surprises.

The $75 cap meant public officials could take gifts up to that amount per lobbyist. Apparently that means multiple lobbyists can combine forces to give gifts of greater value.

Another provision, many believe, will allow many attorneys to evade registration because the bill states they are not technically lobbying unless they are “compensated for the specific purpose of lobbying.”

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, had pushed the reform agenda for the past two sessions, but he said he knew nothing of those additions until the morning of the final day. Even now, there’s confusion over who put them in there.

McKoon said he was receiving telephone updates on the negotiations until 2:30 a.m. and thinks the loopholes may simply be mistakes made on the fly by people with little sleep.

“I don’t think it was anybody’s intention to get rid of the ticket-splitting language that was in the Senate version,” he said. “But it’s in there.”

Despite insistence from the House, the final deal meant volunteer lobbyists would not be required to register unless they received $250 in compensation or reimbursement for expenses. Tying the registration to compensation was a relief to the advocates for reform — many of whom had taken to wearing “I’m not a lobbyist” pins in protest.

No high-fives

After more than two years advocating for change, Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry watched from a closed-circuit television on the third floor of the Capitol as the House unanimously passed HB 142. His mobile phone buzzed with congratulatory texts, but rather than victory, Perry said he felt defeated.

“It really was a surprising feeling,” he said.

Perry said he had envisioned a “high-five moment” when a tough ethics bill finally passed, but the final version of the plan — which he had seen only about an hour before it moved through both chambers — was weaker in many ways than either the original House bill or the Senate plan.

“We (were) realizing for the first time that there was ticket splitting allowed and just thinking it would have almost been better to walk away from this without anything,” he said.

With a few days to think about it, Perry isn’t so despondent now. The bill is better than the current system of uncapped spending, but only because that system is “so bad” and out of step with most of the rest of the nation, he said.

“This is some sort of limitation, but it is nowhere near the step that people wanted them to take,” he said.

But, he said, there’s always next year.