Georgia Senate bill would put limits on fundraising by challengers

State Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, rewrote an ethics measure to include a ban on all candidates, including challengers, raising money during a legislative session. Legislators and other state officials are currently banned from raising money during a session, although Mullis wrote legislation last year that created "leadership committees" that the governor and a select group of legislative leaders could use to collect donations while the Legislature is in session. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

State Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, rewrote an ethics measure to include a ban on all candidates, including challengers, raising money during a legislative session. Legislators and other state officials are currently banned from raising money during a session, although Mullis wrote legislation last year that created "leadership committees" that the governor and a select group of legislative leaders could use to collect donations while the Legislature is in session. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia Senate leaders are trying to make sure the people challenging them for office can’t raise campaign money during the three months state lawmakers are in session.

Legislators have long griped that — while they and other state officials have been banned from taking checks during a session — challengers are allowed to raise money in that period, roughly from early January through March.

That was the crux of the legal argument state lawyers made for why a federal judge shouldn’t throw out a special committee the Republican majority approved last year that allows the governor to raise unlimited funds during a session.

So Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, on Thursday proposed a rewritten ethics measure — House Bill 333 — that would include a ban on challengers raising money during a session.

Decades ago, the General Assembly decided it looked bad for a governor or 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.

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 freewheeling than today, although lobbyists still wine and dine lawmakers off-campus during sessions.

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

Challengers, on the other hand, can’t vote on legislation so they have a whole lot less to offer the Capitol interests.

Mullis said he was reacting to U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen’s comments during court hearings in which he said lawmakers could respond to Gov. Brian Kemp’s argument that his reelection challenger in the GOP primary — former U.S. Sen. David Perdue — had an advantage by banning contributions to all candidates during the session.

The state’s lawyer made that argument about Perdue’s “advantage” despite the fact that the incumbent has raised roughly 18 times as much money as the challenger. In fact, incumbent lawmakers typically raise far more money than challengers, despite the session prohibition.

But Mullis told Rules Committee members: “This brings parity and makes fairness for all. I don’t think it’s just because you are an incumbent, you can raise (more) money.”

The Rules Committee passed the proposal Thursday, but the Senate voted Friday to send it back to the committee for reconsideration.

Currently, leadership committees such as Kemp’s and those of a select group of legislative leaders can raise money during the session. Mullis sponsored the bill that created the leadership committee setup that benefits a few state leaders and lawmakers.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday that Kemp’s leadership committee raised about $355,000 during the first few weeks of the session.

Cohen this week ruled Kemp couldn’t use the leadership committee money against Perdue in the primary, but if he wins the GOP nomination, he could use it this summer and fall when he is likely to face a reelection rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Perdue’s campaign blamed Kemp for Mullis’ proposal.

“This attempt by incumbents to shut down their challengers’ ability to raise money is politics at its worst,” the campaign said in a release. “If 20-year career politician Brian Kemp spent half as much time protecting Georgia’s elections as he does scheming to hold on to his office, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

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