Kemp signs bill giving big-money donors more impact on key races

Georgia State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, says Senate Bill 221, which he sponsored, will limit the influence of “dark money,” contributions funneled through nonprofits and other entities that don’t have to disclose donors. But the leadership committees that will be created under the legislation could still take contributions from nonprofits that don’t disclose donors. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, says Senate Bill 221, which he sponsored, will limit the influence of “dark money,” contributions funneled through nonprofits and other entities that don’t have to disclose donors. But the leadership committees that will be created under the legislation could still take contributions from nonprofits that don’t disclose donors. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Without any public notification from his office, Gov. Brian Kemp last week quietly gave his approval to a new law allowing state leaders to set up committees that could raise money during General Assembly sessions while lobbyists are trying to get legislation passed.

Senate Bill 221 — which was pushed by the Republican majority and opposed by Democrats — also allows new committees backing Kemp’s reelection and those of legislative leaders to raise and spend unlimited contributions from donors, essentially circumventing current limits on how much individuals, special interests and businesses can give to candidates.

“There is not going to be any limits on spending. There would not be a contribution limit,” said Rick Thompson, a member of the state ethic commission whose company has set up dozens of campaign committees and political nonprofits for candidates and organizations over the years.

Monday is the final day for Kemp to sign or veto legislation passed during the 2021 session. The governor will sign a $27.2 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. He also will sign a repeal of the 1863 citizen’s arrest statute initially cited by South Georgia prosecutors as justification for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot in a Glynn County neighborhood in February 2020.

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He has signed dozens of bills into law in recent weeks.

SB 221 is aimed at preparing Republicans for the 2022 elections, when Kemp will likely face a rematch with former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who set fundraising records when they ran against each other in 2018.

The measure lets a governor, lieutenant governor, a party’s nominee for those positions, and Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate create so-called “leadership committees,” which would raise money either for their own races or to try to affect other contests.

Statewide candidates are currently 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 do not apply. So contributors — typically lobbyists, industry associations or businesses interested in legislation or state funding — can give as much as they like.

“The limits protect, a little bit, the average person who can’t give, and now you’re throwing that away and the Georgia Powers of the world can give millions of dollars,” said William Perry, a longtime good government advocate who runs Georgia Ethics Watchdogs.

In addition, there will be no limit on when the committees can raise money.

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State lawmakers for decades have faced bans on taking campaign contributions from lobbyists and special interests during a legislative 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. Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year that his chamber’s rules don’t allow session fundraising anymore by Senate leadership PACs.

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.

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.

A review of campaign contribution reports earlier this year by the AJC showed the House and Senate GOP caucus funds — which are controlled by leadership in those chambers — 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.

Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who sponsored SB 221, noted that the new leadership committees will have to disclose who gives them money and how it’s spent. That, he said, would limit the influence of “dark money,” contributions funneled through nonprofits and other entities that don’t have to disclose donors.

However, the leadership committees will be able to take contributions from nonprofits that don’t disclose donors, just like the group that ran a last-minute smear campaign against then-state Sen. David Shafer in the Republican runoff for lieutenant governor, which he lost by 1,600 votes out of 559,000 cast.

While Kemp and Republican leaders will have a head start on fundraising — they will be able to create committees this year — the Democratic gubernatorial nominee won’t be known until next year’s primary. If the nominee is Abrams, Republican say, money won’t be a problem for the Democrat.

Abrams has a national fundraising network and took in a record amount — more than $27 million — for her 2018 campaign. The political action committee for the voting rights group she founded after that election — Fair Fight — raised about $120 million over the next two years, and she and the group received credit for helping Democrats win the presidential race and two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia during the 2020 election cycle.

If she runs and becomes the nominee, under SB 221, she would be able to create a committee to raise unlimited donations for her campaign and to help other candidates.

Perry characterized SB 221 as “the Wild West” of politics, a “slap in the face and an end around” some of the most important tenets of campaign finance laws in Georgia.

“It is throwing all the protections of our campaign finance system out the window,” he said.

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