By William Perry
Like a slap to the face, the 2013 legislative session ended with ethics bills that leave Georgians rubbing our cheeks. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good in this year’s bills, but the bad still leaves a sting.
As to the good, House Speaker David Ralston deserves praise for restoring rule-making authority to the state ethics commission. Restored will be the important function that allows the commission to create rules where gray areas exist that are not addressed by state law. Rulemaking was stripped from the agency and has handcuffed the commission in certain situations since 2010, prior to Ralston becoming speaker. Common Cause Georgia, along with the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, has pushed for three years to bring it back, and the speaker answered that call in his first draft of HB 142, and kept it there in every draft that followed. He deserves a round of applause for that.
Other good things that happened – the appearance of a $75 cap, no free tickets for concerts and sporting events (legislators must now reimburse lobbyists for face value of such tickets), golf and other leisure activities are now out and lobbyists can no longer fund trips outside the U.S. Also, with a change from Dec. 31 to Jan. 31 each year for campaign contribution reports, no longer will we have to wait until July, long after the end of each session, to see which lobbyists gave what campaign money to lawmakers right before the start of the session.
Unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good. Voters clearly asked for limiting lobbyist gifts to legislators, with no exceptions. Republican primary voters supported by 87 percent a specific $100 cap. While voters got what appears to be a $75 cap – loopholes allow the cap to be lifted for travel for “official duties” and for large group gatherings such as committee dinners, caucus events and functions to which the entire General Assembly are invited. So you can no longer seek to influence one lawmaker with a steak dinner over $75, but if you can afford to take out an entire committee, then you have unlimited spending. Wine and dine until your heart is content – and your credit card is maxed out.
Another great concern is a provision that enables lawyers to be exempt from registering as a lobbyists. If they don’t have to register, then they don’t have to report gifts.
Perhaps worst of all, the legislation allows lobbyists to pool their $75 caps to lavish lawmakers with expensive gifts. Our recommendation was to limit the item of influence, but the Legislature gave us a limit on what an individual lobbyist can spend. If a lawmaker likes a certain $200 bottle of wine, it just takes three lobbyists using the “$75 limit” to buy it.
While there are some victories to claim, in the end, our legislators let us down.
William Perry is executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a member of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform