Ethics quandary at the Gold Dome: What’s a lobbyist?

Of all possible obstacles to ethics reform, who thought the biggest one would be defining the word “lobbyist”? Yet, that’s where we stand today.

For years, the biggest obstacle was getting legislators to take up the issue of lobbyist gifts to legislators. Georgia is one of three states with no restrictions at all on them.

House Speaker David Ralston was one of the strongest, and most powerful, objectors to regulating these gifts. To Ralston’s credit, he responded to public pressure by revealing this past week two mostly good bills. Among other changes, his bills would ban nearly all lobbyist gifts to state and local officials; require campaign contributions in the run-up to the session to be reported within days (rather than in July); and, critically, restore the state ethics commission’s rule-making authority.

Now, if we can only figure out who the lobbyists are.

It sounds easy, right? After all, everyone knows what lobbying is: an effort to influence public officials to do something.

But there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. On the contrary, freedom of speech and the right to petition the government are enshrined in the First Amendment.

The original text of Ralston’s bill ran afoul of those rights. Its definition of who must register with the state as a lobbyist was far too broad, conceivably affecting everyone from school children meeting multiple legislators at the Capitol to folks addressing their local county commission.

Again to their credit, Ralston and other House leaders seem to be responding to criticism in good faith. Rep. Rich Golick, the Smyrna Republican who chairs the subcommittee handling these bills, repeatedly promised during a Thursday hearing to offer a narrower definition soon. All eyes will be on that revision.

But Golick and other legislators at Thursday’s hearing openly struggled to define “lobbyist” properly. Who deserves that label and the restrictions that come with it?

Is a lobbyist anyone representing anyone else? If so, does that include church pastors?

Is it anyone paid by another entity? Same question about pastors. Only people paid specifically to lobby? If so, you’ll see a lot of new business cards without the words “government affairs” printed on them.

How about only those who represent for-profit entities? That’d omit non-profit hospitals with a clear interest in how much the state spends on health care.

Maybe it’s anyone arguing for or against a measure in which he, or an entity he represents, has a financial stake. If so, could citizens not speak their minds about income-tax legislation?

Only people who hold a certain number of meetings with legislators? That’d be welcome news for certain large corporations whose lobbyists rarely show up at the Capitol until there’s a specific bill they want to push or kill — and which almost always get their way.

That last bit gets to the heart of public concern with lobbying: the belief certain folks have undue influence over legislators.

“Undue,” and for that matter “influence,” are in the eye of the beholder. So here’s my unlobbied-for advice: Cast the net broadly in terms of registration, to maximize the number of people subject to the new restrictions about gifts, but keep the burden on them as low as possible.

Require a fee and report-filing only from those who, on their own or some other person or entity’s behalf, spend more than a certain amount on lobbying expenses. Create sufficient penalties for anyone who games the system.

Then fix a couple of other problems with the bills: Close the exception for food and beverages provided to entire committees or subcommittees, and perhaps require travel reimbursements for “official duties” to be pre-approved by the ethics commission.

And then move on.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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81 comments Add your comment

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

February 4th, 2013
7:18 am

Be sure to include union bosses and other dummycrat party money laundering tools,just in case the libs ever get power back in Georgia. Wait a minute. libs in power in Georgia?

Never mind.

Streetracer

February 4th, 2013
7:19 am

The state regulatory agency I work for has a de facto policy of not accepting anything from anyone. (There is an “official” policy with some sort of limits, but a strict reading would mean that I couldn’t receive a Birthday gift from my son who works for a regulated company). If that sort of limit is good for the peons, seems it should be good for the powers that be.

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

February 4th, 2013
7:59 am

yes, pastors are lobbyists

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

February 4th, 2013
8:01 am

?No, Kyle. The best ad last night was the Sodastream ad which CBS had pulled because it was offensive to Coke and Pepsi.

I am guessing CBS needed ads to fill in during the blackout so they went ahead and ran it.

South Georgia Retiree

February 4th, 2013
8:14 am

Here’s the simple fix. Legislators can accept nothing from anyone, period. That goes for individual gifts or group gifts as some of the proposed legislation allows now. Also, no free or reduced tickets to any college events. Even someone offering a hamburger has one thing on his or her mind…influencing a legislator to get something the giver wants. The only exemption would be if the giver advertises publicly he or she is offering the same gift to any citizen of Georgia.

Lil' Barry Bailout - OBAMAPHONE!!!

February 4th, 2013
8:23 am

Anyone 18 or older who gives anything of value to a legislator is a lobbyist.

barking frog

February 4th, 2013
8:41 am

Make registration easy. Register everyone. Cap a dollar amount.
Require gifts to be reported. Make avoidance a felony.

Thomas Heyward Jr

February 4th, 2013
8:46 am

Those who practice Law should not be in the business of making it.
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Lobbyists are not the problem.
Lawyers are.
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Ban them and 99.9% of the ethical problems will vanish.

indigo

February 4th, 2013
9:09 am

“What’s a lobbyist”?

That’s a good one.

I knew those good ole boys would find a way around those pesky ethics concerns.

CJwriter

February 4th, 2013
9:18 am

Let’s be careful what we ask for . . . Some organization or association represents the interests of nearly every kind of Georgian, whether or not that Georgian is a dues-paying member. Many, many have no money or mechanism to give campaign donations, but they can afford a dinner with a key legislator. When you remove that organization’s ability to take a committee chairman to dinner and have an hour to explain a perspective, you shift influence to those who can give $2,500 campaign contributions. What we need is to have influence (often representing the desires of everyday citizens) more widely distributed, instead of shifting it to just the few who can make big campaign donations.

Jefferson

February 4th, 2013
9:28 am

If you get paid to bribe or run your mouth, you might be a lobbyist.

At the end of the day, if there is nothing to show for your labor, you should thanks somebody for your food.

Old Timer

February 4th, 2013
9:31 am

Solution–Lawyers hould be baned from politics–End of problem. Addendum==there are too many of them and representing “all the people” should not be an income producer

independent thinker

February 4th, 2013
9:40 am

Contributions from the NRA and Georgia Carry should not be banned. They are helping Georgia arm its federally protected militia so as to prevent takeover and violation of second amendment rights by federal agents who are jack booted thugs.

JDW

February 4th, 2013
9:49 am

The real problem here is the legislators themselves. If you elect people of integrity then this entire discussion becomes moot. I must admit I do find it strange that all these Republicans are in favor of such subjective regulation yet oppose objective regulations like say on the financial industry.

As for the current dilemma…you are a lobbyist the law would like to track when you provide a gift or contribution of a certain value or represent someone that does AND are meeting directly with elected/government officials in an effort to present a point of view.

So unless a Pastor or their church is giving gifts or making contributions they don’t need to register. If a taxpayer is meeting, outside a public forum, with a legislator regarding tax policy then no registration required unless said taxpayer has made a contribution to said legislator.

Thomas Heyward Jr

February 4th, 2013
9:52 am

What’s a lobbyist?
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What is…………….is?
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Don’t follow the Lawyers down a rabbit hole.

Kyle Wingfield

February 4th, 2013
10:06 am

Retiree @ 8:14: “Legislators can accept nothing from anyone, period.”

No Christmas gifts from their neighbors? Their boss at their day job — remember, ours is a part-time legislature (and should remain so) — can’t buy them lunch?

And you don’t want to get into trying to decide who their friends are and who their “friends” are.

The restrictions on gifts, etc. should apply as broadly as possible, but there is a limit to the number of people to whom they should apply — and the number of people who should have to go through the bureaucratic hassle of registering, paying a fee, filing reports, etc.

Look, I’d have no sympathy for them if they were trying to write this to include loopholes. But it is genuinely difficult to define “lobbyist” in a way that doesn’t infringe unnecessarily on First Amendment rights.

Kyle Wingfield

February 4th, 2013
10:08 am

JDW @ 9:49: So, what if the gift or contribution comes well after the meeting but is hinted at during the meeting?

I see what you’re getting at, and I don’t disagree with the spirit of it. But I do think it’s harder than most people realize to write this law in a way that doesn’t make it either riddled with loopholes or unnecessarily burdensome on people that 99.9999999 percent of us would never consider a “lobbyist.”

Kyle Wingfield

February 4th, 2013
10:09 am

Thomas @ 9:52: OK, if it’s that easy, then give us a definition that could go into the law.

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

February 4th, 2013
10:10 am

“The real problem here is the legislators themselves. If you elect people of integrity then this entire discussion becomes moot.”

Great talking point, but what have many on this blog (and probably you yourself) done to change the people this state continues to re-elect each term? They’re largely the same people year in and year out.

Thomas Heyward Jr

February 4th, 2013
10:27 am

Kyle Wingfield

February 4th, 2013
10:09 am

Thomas @ 9:52: OK, if it’s that easy, then give us a definition that could go into the law.
Link
Report this comment
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As with the word “is”…………”lobbyist” already has a definition.
Don’t let shyster lawyers muddle the definition.
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Stick to the State constitution which limits law-maker’s influence, have complete open records of influence peddling, and………………..vote accordingly…….At the state level, the system usually works.
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You’re wasting your time on ethics reform.
Ethics CAN”t be reformed.
Either you have them or not.
Dedicate your time to “sunshine” laws.
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Sunshine is the best treatment to get rid of mold, harmful bacteria,and lawyers.
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Don’t follow them into the Rabbit hole.
You’re better than that Wingfeild.
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Just Saying..

February 4th, 2013
10:28 am

People you call for a campaign donation, who expect something in return.
People who pick up the tab where ever you go.

Only politicians have trouble figuring this out…

Kyle Wingfield

February 4th, 2013
10:36 am

You’re not getting off that easily, Thomas.

Here’s how my copy of Webster’s defines “lobbyist”: “A person, acting for a special interest group, who tries to influence the introduction of or voting on legislation or the decisions of government administrators.”

Sounds good, right? So, what’s a “special interest group”? Is the tea party a “special interest group”? They have a few people who spend a lot of time down at the Capitol. How about the students who come to the Capitol one day a year to demonstrate how much school choice measures mean to them?

As I indicated in the column, I think the answer is to cast the net rather broadly but keep the burden relatively low until you cross a certain (relatively low) threshold.

And don’t worry: Sunshine laws for the Legislature, whose records are about the only public ones in Georgia not subject to sunshine laws, are up next.

Kyle Wingfield

February 4th, 2013
10:38 am

Just Saying @ 10:28: But “pick[ing] up the tab where ever [they] go” is exactly what’s on the chopping block here. So, to whom does that apply? See my earlier example about people in their private lives.

captguitarman

February 4th, 2013
10:40 am

Aesop. As a wise Greek story teller/philosopher, you should know that things change in politics, and in this super wired, always connected, 24/7 culture we live in now, and with a 24/7 news cycle, and attention spans shrinking or disappearing every where at an alarming rate, things can change very quickly. So, never taking anything for granted is a wise policy these days. Remember back to the King Roy years when the Dem/Libs had been in full power in the Dome for 130+ years? Did it ever look like it could change then? And then they did, in a very big way. This is why the Pub/Cons need to be careful and not over play their hand and go for a fringe right senate candidate who is more of a Tea Party / Libertarian than a traditional Pub/Con. Or like in Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada, the Pub/Cons could also foolishly lose a locked up Senate seat.

And keep in mind that there is political culture under the Dome that transcends party politics. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the Pubs from the Dems without a program. I have always summed it up as a “Jes’ good ol’ boys doin’ bidness” culture, and that is the most bi-partisan activity that goes on there. Hopefully, with ethics reform finally on the way, the final days of that culture are in now in sight.

indigo

February 4th, 2013
10:43 am

Tiberius – 10:10

Please furnish some information on what we, the ordinary people, can do to “change the people this state continues to re-elect each term”.

MarkV

February 4th, 2013
10:48 am

I have no problem with Kyle’s proposal – at first glance. The devil will be in the details. But I question the way he posts some of his questions, which suggests that somehow the answer is obvious:

“Is a lobbyist anyone representing anyone else? If so, does that include church pastors?”

Why not?

“Maybe it’s anyone arguing for or against a measure in which he, or an entity he represents, has a financial stake. If so, could citizens not speak their minds about income-tax legislation?”

I was under the impression that the issue was gifts, not speaking minds.

Streetracer

February 4th, 2013
10:52 am

Kyle @ 10:something and others:

The problem with defining activities is that somebody can always come up with some case that they believe should be an exemption. The solution is a ban that is totally unambiguous. If I, as a peon, can’t accept anything, why should there be any sort of exemption for others?

For example, somebody suggested banning gifts from lawyers. How does one define “Lawyer”. Is it a member of the bar? Someone with a law degree? Someone who attended, but did not graduate, law school? There are too many potential exemptions and exceptions.

Same sort of analysis would apply to any group or entity.

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

February 4th, 2013
10:52 am

“Please furnish some information on what we, the ordinary people, can do to “change the people this state continues to re-elect each term”.”

Please. Now I have to teach you about finding alternatives and getting involved in your local party politics, Indigo?

Kyle Wingfield

February 4th, 2013
10:54 am

MarkV @ 10:48: The issue is who the restrictions and registration requirements apply to.

MANGLER

February 4th, 2013
10:56 am

During all of this fuss over the acceptance of gifts from lobbyists, let’s not forget to pay close attention to the giving of gifts to constituents. Getting meals and trips to Disney seem to pale in comparison to offering no bid contracts, real estate, zoning changes, and special tax zones. Is there a mechanism in place to reverse decisions that are found to be slightly less than ethical after they have been made?

indigo

February 4th, 2013
10:59 am

Tiberius – 10:52

That’s fine for an un-employed home schooler like you.

Unfortuately, most of us have to work 40-50 hours a week and manage a household with spouse and kids.

There is no time or energy for “local party politics”.

And, in Georgia, Democrats and Republicans have a solid lock. Essentially, there are no viable alternatives.

If there were then, by now, we would already have those attractive alternatives.

Don't Tread

February 4th, 2013
11:03 am

Of course the Democrat definition of “lobbyist” is anyone who 1) opposes what they want, and 2) communicates with an elected official in any way. If you agree with them and communicate with an elected official, of course then you’re just a citizen speaking your mind or exercising your rights and not a lobbyist.

And, of course, the lobbyists need to be put into yet another government database. I’m sure then the next step would be to publish their name, address, and other personal information in the paper so that the community knows what evil lurks in their midst.

:roll:

Just Saying..

February 4th, 2013
11:05 am

Kyle-
I held a couple of gov’t positions in my career. I didn’t find it difficult to identify those who were quick to offer something when I held those posts, and to whom I was dead the day I left. What’s hard is the human part: Realizing that everything you say is not that funny, paying your own way, returning or donating the gifts, sending back the tickets. One guideline is: would you make the offer a part of your next campaign? If not, say no.
A large part of the problem is that we’ve allowed so much of this to be the norm. What you, Jay, and the AJC have been doing is the most valuable part of the solution: keep the spotlight on. And in the end, let’s don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good

MarkV

February 4th, 2013
11:08 am

Kyle Wingfield @ 10:54 am
“The issue is who the restrictions and registration requirements apply to.”

That does not answer the question, why not pastors? And would it be such a difficult things to write a law about registration of lobbyists based on financial interest, which would make clear that it does not apply to ordinary citizens speaking their minds? After all, it is you who wants to “cast the net broadly in terms of registration.” Would you not have to make the same exception?

td

February 4th, 2013
11:09 am

Kyle,

You are giving great examples of the very reason that “Ethics reform” never works and does nothing but creates more problems.

Ethics can not be defined. It is the individual moral decision based on what the individual believes is right or wrong. Example: I do not feel that my elected politician going to a Falcons game paid for by a lobbyist is a big deal and would influence my legislator but I am sure there are many that would think this is a huge problem. Instead of trying to legislate ethics (moral behavior of individuals) that everyone will never agree on then I think it should be left up to the voter to decide.

I am all for total sunshine. Any gift, trip, meal, ticket… should be recorded immediately on a public access website that is easy to navigate. The press can do story after story about what this legislator or that legislator accepted and the individual voter can decide if what his legislator is receiving fits their idea of ethical behavior and vote accordingly.

Thomas Heyward Jr

February 4th, 2013
11:11 am

Wingfield—-you stated——–

“As I indicated in the column, I think the answer is to cast the net rather broadly but keep the burden relatively low until you cross a certain (relatively low) threshold.”
——————————————————————————
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You should cast your nets over the law-makers.
Not the people.
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Works everytime.
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And Good luck with the sunshine laws.
We’re counting on you.

Thomas Heyward Jr

February 4th, 2013
11:12 am

An addedum———————
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Thomas Heyward Jr

February 4th, 2013
11:11 am

Wingfield—-you stated——–

“As I indicated in the column, I think the answer is to cast the net rather broadly but keep the burden relatively low until you cross a certain (relatively low) threshold.”
——————————————————————————
.
You should cast your nets over the law-makers.
Not the people.
.
Works everytime.
.
And Good luck with the sunshine laws.
We’re counting on you.
—————————————————————
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And you SHOULD “burden” the heck out of the law-makers.

td

February 4th, 2013
11:14 am

MarkV

February 4th, 2013
11:08 am

Are single issue advocates who have nothing to financially gain lobbyist? Example: Gay marriage advocates. Should people that want gay marriage rights in this state be made to register just to talk to their legislator because they give them reading material on the subject they are advocating or because they talk to their legislator on numerous occasions?

Rafe Hollister preparing for an Obamanist America

February 4th, 2013
11:15 am

Lobbyist are like pornography, as the Supreme Court justice said, I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it, or something to that effect. We know who the lobbyist are, but it is hard to define who is not a lobbyist. There are always nit pickers who are going to try and exploit any definition that is incorporated into the law, so do the best you can and move on.

If this is all these jokers have to do, then they need to go on home. Sine die are the magic words.

Bruno

February 4th, 2013
11:24 am

Example: I do not feel that my elected politician going to a Falcons game paid for by a lobbyist is a big deal and would influence my legislator but I am sure there are many that would think this is a huge problem.

Part of the solution from my perspective would be to have set-aside hours for legislators to meet with citizens and lobbyists in an appropriate setting. I’ve never done business on a golf course or at a football game, and don’t see why anyone else thinks this is a good idea.

td

February 4th, 2013
11:35 am

Bruno

February 4th, 2013
11:24 am

You just made my argument. What you think is ethical I disagree with, therefore to write a ethics bill one of our feelings on ethics will be seen as right and the other one will be seen as wrong. You can not legislate ethics.

Bruno

February 4th, 2013
11:36 am

The press can do story after story about what this legislator or that legislator accepted and the individual voter can decide if what his legislator is receiving fits their idea of ethical behavior and vote accordingly.

td–The only problem with your “let the public decide” approach is that there’s too much at stake in terms of tax dollars to simply vote unethical people out after the fact. The net effect of gift giving is that hundreds of millions of state contracts are awarded based on tens of thousands of dollars of gifts, mere pennies on the dollar.

MarkV

February 4th, 2013
11:38 am

td @ 11:14 am

td,

Contrary to what Kyle wrote @ 10:54 am, the primary issue, as I understand it, is not “who the restrictions and registration requirements apply to,” it is the gifts. The proposed registration would not be needed if the problem were people speaking their mind. My comment was not that ONLY people who have a financial gain at stake should be registered, but to point out that if financial gain is one of the criteria, the argument about “people speaking their mind about taxes” is not a serious obstacle.

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

February 4th, 2013
11:40 am

“That’s fine for an un-employed home schooler like you.”

Once again, your incorrect assumptions expose you to ridicule, Indigo.

“Unfortuately, most of us have to work 40-50 hours a week and manage a household with spouse and kids.”

And excuse for yourself.

“There is no time or energy for “local party politics”.”

Then you have NO right to complain about who you elect.

“And, in Georgia, Democrats and Republicans have a solid lock. Essentially, there are no viable alternatives.”

There are always alternatives within each party, even if you don’t have a viable third-party alternative. All you’re giving us, Indigo, is the lazy man’s excuses for mediocrity. A viable democratic Republic takes hard work. Too bad you and others are not willing to do that work, but are more than willing to complain when it doesn’t work for you.

Bruno

February 4th, 2013
11:41 am

You can not legislate ethics

From a personal standpoint, no, you can’t legislate honesty and integrity. However, it is possible, and highly appropriate, to create laws forbidding legislators from accepting gifts from those seeking to influence them. Admittedly, it is problematic to create perfect definitions and perfect laws, but as Just Saying stated above, “don’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good”.

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

February 4th, 2013
11:42 am

“I’ve never done business on a golf course or at a football game, and don’t see why anyone else thinks this is a good idea.”

Never done a deal at a football game, Bruno, but I’ve closed lots of business on the golf course. Best way possible to judge the character of the person you might be dealing with. Anybody who will cheat at golf is not someone you want to put your faith (or money) in.

Bruno

February 4th, 2013
11:45 am

Anybody who will cheat at golf is not someone you want to put your faith (or money) in.

C’mon, Ti, what’s a little kick here or there or a few mulligans gonna hurt?? ;-)

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

February 4th, 2013
11:48 am

I think the simplest definition is that if you are representing someone other than yourself, or if you are not a resident of this state, you’re a lobbyist. If you are unpaid by that group, you register without a fee. if you are paid by a group you register with a fee.

Everybody else is just a citizen with 1st amendment access to their elected representatives.

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

February 4th, 2013
11:50 am

Hey, Bruno, I can live a with a “breakfast mulligan”, as long as everybody gets to use one. ;)

Shaving strokes? Nope. I won’t ever do business with you.

Finn McCool (The System isn't Broken; It's Fixed)

February 4th, 2013
11:53 am

was Beyonce booty-synchying last night or was that the real thing?