Bill could boost political donations during legislative sessions

Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 221. The bill would let a governor, lieutenant governor, a party’s nominee for those positions, and House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders create committees that could raise unlimited amounts of money either for their own races or to try to affect other contests. It would also allow special interests to make political contributions during the legislative session, when measures that could affect their businesses are under consideration. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 221. The bill would let a governor, lieutenant governor, a party’s nominee for those positions, and House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders create committees that could raise unlimited amounts of money either for their own races or to try to affect other contests. It would also allow special interests to make political contributions during the legislative session, when measures that could affect their businesses are under consideration. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

As lawmakers were debating the taxing of “alternative nicotine products” such as vaping and e-cigarettes last March, an industry leader donated $15,000 to the House Republican caucus political fund.

When lawmakers returned to the Capitol in June from a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic to pass a $26 billion state budget for the coming year, road builders gave the same fund $70,000.

State lawmakers for decades have been banned from taking campaign contributions from lobbyists and special interests during the session. Long ago, the General Assembly said it looked bad for a lawmaker to take a check at the same time he or she is considering legislation or funding that the donor may be trying to get approved or killed.

But caucus funds that raise money to support GOP candidates, such as the House Republican Trust and its Senate counterpart, are allowed to take money during sessions.

Now, the House is a vote away from creating a new category of funds — called leadership committees — that critics say would provide even more incentive for lobbyists and special interests to donate unlimited amounts during the session to governors and legislative leaders, who will be able to use the money to coordinate directly with political campaigns.

“This is what makes people not trust the system and not trust us,” Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said shortly before Senate Bill 221 passed her chamber last month, largely on a party-line vote.

SB 221 was approved Monday by the House Judiciary Committee.

Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the bill’s sponsor, said it would let a governor, lieutenant governor, a party’s nominee for those positions, and House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders create such committees. They could each raise unlimited amounts of money to try to affect contests.

Statewide candidates are allowed to raise about $18,000 per election cycle if they make a runoff — $7,100 in legislative races — from individual donors.

Limits on how much donors could give to the committees would not apply. So contributors — typically lobbyists, industry associations or businesses interested in legislation or state funding — could give as much as they like.

Because the bill would force committees to disclose donors, Mullis said it fights so-called dark money — funds that hide the identity of donors — something that has become more common in the past decade.

“This bill will shine the light on a cancer on our democracy,” Mullis said.

He and House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, who is pushing the bill in the House, have played up the “transparency” in the bill. However, political nonprofits can still take money, not disclose donors, and then give to leadership committees such as those in SB 221.

And neither Mullis nor Kelley raised the issue of money being given during the legislative session.

Hitting up lobbyists during session

Old-timers at the Capitol remember when lobbyists seeking to pass legislation could go onto the legislative chamber floors or into ante rooms and buttonhole lawmakers. The atmosphere was more free-wheeling than today, although lobbyists still wine and dine lawmakers off-campus during sessions.

Back in the day, lawmakers regularly held fundraisers during the session.

Jay Morgan, a longtime lobbyist and Republican activist, remembers them because he often got invites and was expected to be there to represent his clients’ interests.

“They were some of the most unsettling events I had as a young lobbyist,” Morgan said.

In the early 1990s lawmakers made it illegal for lobbyists and others to give campaign contributions to legislators during the session because, besides the possibility for corruption, it just didn’t look good.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the dean of the General Assembly and a House member since 1975, said lobbyists could put a lot of pressure on you then. Contributions during the session, he said, “cut both ways.”

“It helps the member, but it puts us on the border of being compromised,” Smyre said.

Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, was also around when contributions during the session were legal. ”To allow contributions during the session totally erodes any efforts to separate it from bills that are proposed and funding that is put in the budget,” she said.

But what goes unsaid is that caucus trusts and other groups involved in the political process already accept donations during the session, and they accept “dark money.”

Both political parties accept contributions during sessions, and they often receive big money from the people with a lot at stake in what happens at the Statehouse.

A review of campaign contribution reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed the House and Senate GOP caucus funds - which are controlled by House and Senate leadership - reported receiving more than $300,000 in the past five years during legislative sessions.

That included money from the film industry while film tax credit legislation was being considered, from medical marijuana producers as rules were being written to regulate the state’s new market, Airbnb as lawmakers were considering a bill to collect taxes on stays, the cable industry as the General Assembly was looking at taxing competitors in the streaming business, the trial lawyers lobby, which fights seemingly annual battles against limits on jury awards, and San Francisco-based e-cigarette-maker Juul.

These caucus funds have been around for years and have played a big role in keeping the Republican majority in the majority. Democrats had similar funds when they were in power.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who won office with the help of a dark money fund running ads against his runoff opponent, has an independent committee called Advance Georgia, which has raised $1.6 million since mid-2019 to help Republican Senate candidates.

That included $150,000 from two Washington-based Republican groups, $80,000 from the Georgia trial lawyers lobby, $70,000 from two nursing home political action committees, $50,000 from Georgia Power, $50,000 from the sports betting and horse racing lobbies, $40,000 from the road-builders lobby, $20,000 from the car dealers lobby, and $35,000 from the company that has a contract to manage the state’s PeachCare for Kids health insurance program.

Relying on some of the same donors, the House Republican Trust has raised more than $5 million since the 2018 elections, with House Speaker David Ralston promising a big push to halt gains made by Democrats that year.

That total included $145,000 from the trial lawyers, $121,000 from Georgia Power, $100,000 from the small-loan, high-interest-rate industry’s lobbyists, $90,000 from the Pruitt family nursing homes, $55,000 from AT&T, $25,000 from the highway contractors lobby, and an additional $450,000 from the Republican State Leadership PAC, a Washington-based group that worked to oust state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell.

The leadership committees may be of more use to the Democratic caucuses, who have not had the same kind of PACs and independent committees as Republicans in recent years. Last year, the party was heavily reliant on Fair Fight PAC, the political arm of the voting rights group Stacey Abrams started in 2018. Fair Fight‘s PAC — which has raised $120 million in a little more than two years and supported Democratic efforts in nearly two-dozen states — discloses its donors.

Orrock, who has been in the General Assembly for 34 years, said ultimately, the people most likely to get hit up for money may not like SB 221 — the lobbyists and their clients expected to fund leadership committees.

“It’s one more way to gouge money from lobbyists,” she said. “It’s a bald-faced effort to get more money into politics.”