Around 6 p.m. Thursday, the final day of this year’s legislative session, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle had to make a phone call.
He wasn’t phoning the speaker of the House so they could gavel the session adjourned, sine die. Rather, Cagle was asking his chief legal counsel about an amendment to a bill.
I know, I know: Government-jargon-blah-blah-blah alerts are sounding all across metro Atlanta right about now. But this story isn’t about Gold Dome process. It’s about money, power and how the two intersect in ways that can be hard to see.
For a seasoned presiding officer who wastes little time assigning bills to committees and making various other rulings from the rostrum, Cagle’s pause was unusual. Then again, the amendment was unusually delicate: Sen. Jason Carter, an Atlanta Democrat, was proposing a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts to legislators. It was the same limit proposed by Republicans and — until then — snuffed out by higher-ranking Republicans in both the Senate and the House this year.
Cagle hung up, brought the Senate to order, and spoke.
He personally, he said, had voted before for gift caps, and he would allow the amendment if he could. But he was advised that, legally, he could not deem the amendment germane to the underlying bill because it dealt with a different section of state elections law.
Cagle’s decision probably was the prudent thing to do, legally. Even some proponents of the gift limit acknowledged it’s not necessarily a good precedent to lump two issues that different into one bill.
Four hours later, though, some legislators dispensed with that restraint. But not to pass a gift limit. Oh, no.
Instead, senators voted 46-4 to approve a bill, HB 875, about hunting and fishing licenses. The final version of the bill just happened to include an amendment allowing some rulings by the state ethics commission to be sealed from public view.
Carter’s amendment and the underlying bill both fell under Title 21 (Elections) of the state code, but the amendment was deemed out of bounds.
Now, follow me if you can: HB 875 began in Title 27 (Game and Fish), looped in part of Title 52 (Waters of the State, Ports, and Watercraft), at one point stood to tack on another amendment concerning Title 50 (State Government), and eventually circled all the way back to — irony alert — Title 21 (Elections), to add that part about sealed records.
To be fair, I guess, all those various portions of HB 875 did relate to withholding information from the public.
In the end, House members caught on to the attempt to use HB 875 to take some of the transparency out of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (the agency formerly known as the State Ethics Commission). They voted it down, 143-25.
But if you’re wondering how these two situations could unfold so differently, you haven’t been paying attention. Everyone at the Capitol is for ethics and good governance, until they aren’t. So, as I heard in recent weeks from multiple people, the House can try to restore rule-making authority to the ethics commission, only to be blocked by the Senate, and the Senate can desire to study a gift limit and other potential reforms but get a cold reception in the House for the idea. The only result is neither gets done.
A ray of hope: Cagle could follow his stated interest in a gift cap by appointing a committee to study the concept and propose a bill next year. Unlike some others, he at least seems to understand it’s good politics.
– By Kyle Wingfield