Georgia House GOP gives final OK to new political groups for raising unlimited funds

House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, pushed a bill in the House that would create "leadership committees" that would allow lobbyists and others to make political contributions while the Legislature is in session. Kelley said the committees, which would be able to raise unlimited amounts of campaign money, would be able to coordinate directly with candidates, something that already-existing caucus trusts aren’t legally allowed to do. The bill won final approval and is now headed to Gov. Brian Kemp's desk. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, pushed a bill in the House that would create "leadership committees" that would allow lobbyists and others to make political contributions while the Legislature is in session. Kelley said the committees, which would be able to raise unlimited amounts of campaign money, would be able to coordinate directly with candidates, something that already-existing caucus trusts aren’t legally allowed to do. The bill won final approval and is now headed to Gov. Brian Kemp's desk. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Georgia House gave final approval Thursday to legislation creating new committees that would give Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative leaders the ability to raise unlimited campaign money during General Assembly sessions.

Senate Bill 221 passed the House 96-69 largely along party lines, with Democrats saying it could increase the likelihood that Statehouse lobbyists would be asked to give money at the same time they were trying to persuade lawmakers to pass legislation.

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.

SB 221 will let a governor, lieutenant governor, a party’s nominee for those positions, and House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders create such committees, which would raise money either for their own races or to try to affect other contests.

House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, who pushed the bill in the House, said all contributions would be disclosed and the committees would be able to coordinate directly with candidates, something the caucus trusts aren’t legally allowed to do.

Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, said that would give caucus leaders more power over rank-and-file members.

“Do you really want to vote to give your caucus leadership more power over your fate, to allow them to use unlimited campaign contributions and coordinate with your opponent if they think you are getting out of line?” Evans asked. “Not only to do it, but to threaten it, to hold that over your head in a way they can’t now.”

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.

During debate on the measure, Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, said: “The only purpose this bill serves is to funnel more money into our politics, that’s all it does. Fundamentally, I believe we need fewer ways to get money into politics, not more.”

Wilson called it the “Gold Dome Swamp Bill.”

“Every one of our constituents is watching us this session, the stakes are very high,” he added. “This bill shows them where our priorities lie, where your priorities lie: with them or with the protection of your seat, with them or with the well-monied interests in the hallway.”

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.

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.

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” — money where donors aren’t disclosed.

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.

Donors included:

  • The film industry while film tax credit legislation was being considered.
  • 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.
  • San Francisco-based e-cigarette-maker Juul when taxes on “alternative nicotine products” were being considered.

Kelley said the leadership committees won’t change the status quo, other than that the new committees will have more direct coordination with candidates.

But Wilson said it adds another way for House and Senate leaders to hit up lobbyists during the session as the General Assembly is considering their bills.

“Money always finds a way into every nook and cranny that we allow it to, and it keeps us from putting the interests of our citizens first,” he said.

The bill, he added, “gets us closer to that quid pro quo that our laws today acknowledge that we need to be wary of, we need to prevent.”

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