Keep an eye on your life, liberty and property: Georgia’s Legislature is back in action starting today.
My news-side colleague Kristina Torres has an overview of the top five issues to watch during the next few months. I agree with the five and would add to them the continued murmurs about expanding gambling in Georgia to increase funding for the HOPE scholarship, as well as the difficulty of waiting while Congress debates its own spending levels for the years to come, which could affect Georgia’s funding for Medicaid, education, transportation and more. See, too, if Democratic legislators are able to cause trouble for the overwhelming GOP majorities on issues such as illegal immigration — for instance, when legislators try to tweak the 2011 illegal immigration law to fix unintended consequences for Georgians trying to renew their drivers licenses.
On the ethics front, look for the Senate to take some sort of action today on a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts — passing a bill for the House to consider and/or enacting a rule establishing a $100 cap for its own members in the meantime.
The Senate today included a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts in its rules, which will govern the two-year term that began today. The cap is not without its flaws. Among them: There’s no limit to the number of $99 gifts any given lobbyist can bestow on any particular legislator; travel expenses are not subject to the cap and are only somewhat more restricted than in the past; and lobbyists are not subject to the cap if they buy, for example, dinner for all legislators on a particular committee or subcommittee. But as William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said today, it is “a large step in the right direction.”
New Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer made a strong session-opening call for senators to be mindful of how they deal with the people “out there” — meaning the lobbyists outside the chamber’s doors. He called the Gold Dome “a great temple of flattery” but cautioned that “most of the praise is exaggerated at best.”
“We need to each be careful not to play to the flattery and the praise and the attention,” the Duluth Republican said. “We make a mistake when we do anything in here to curry favor out there.”
Fwiw, Senate Democrats conveyed some cautious optimism about how the new regime would treat and work with them, although none of them are under any illusions about the limitations on a party with less than one-third of the chamber’s votes.
Also of note, the new Senate rules direct the Rules Committee to create an Audit Subcommittee to review legislators’ travel expenses on a regular basis. This is the procedure that was supposed to have been followed in the past but was not, leading to the ethics complaint and subsequent fine against former Rules Chairman Don Balfour. (I say “former” in anticipation of a new chairman for the Senate Rules Committee; those assignments are due out any moment now.) About ethics complaints: The new rules maintain the status quo about who can file an ethics complaint. When the violation in question is a Senate rule, as opposed to a state law, only a senator or Senate staffer or intern may file the complaint — which is virtually the same in the past (previously, a Senate “volunteer,” essentially an unpaid staffer, also could file a complaint). Citizens may still file ethics complaints not related to Senate rules.
Thirty-nine more days to go. There are rumors of a two- or even three-week recess in the middle of the session as legislators wait for Congress to decide whether it will live with its sequestration cuts, substitute other cuts or take some other route. A significant chunk of Georgia’s budget comes from the federal government, in largest part to comply with federal mandates for federal programs. We shall see what happens.
– By Kyle Wingfield