A ban on lobbyist-to-legislator gifts with several big exceptions, or a $100 cap with fewer exceptions? That’s the main question legislators must answer by midnight Thursday if they are going to pass ethics reform this year.
The proposed ban originated in the House, the cap in the Senate. Either one would be an improvement over the status quo of unlimited gifts. But, ultimately, legislators must pick one approach. And the best approach would be an even tighter version of the $100 cap.
House Speaker David Ralston has called a cap, rather than a ban, a “gimmick.” Referring to the $100 cap senators imposed on themselves on the first day of this session, Ralston has wondered aloud: Does it limit gifts to $100 per day? Per hour? Per minute? He opted instead to sponsor a bill with a ban.
The speaker was right to question the Senate rule’s lack of specificity. But with only three days left in this session, and with his bill looking dramatically different as senators send it back to the House, I hope Ralston will decide to support the cap — and make it stronger.
That’s because he has also been right about one other thing all along: the importance of transparency.
Georgia has had transparency regarding lobbyist gifts for several years. But the public deems it insufficient: 1.25 million Georgians — 82 percent of those who cast ballots — voted last summer in support of ending unlimited lobbyist gifts. (The question on primary ballots was not binding, so nothing has changed yet.)
But if transparency is insufficient, it’s also vital. As Ralston has noted, passing either a cap or a ban will not eliminate lobbying. Nor should it, because lobbying is constitutionally protected speech.
Requiring lobbyists to report what they spent on whom allows the public, as Ralston once put it, to “know where the intensity of the lobbying effort is.” That’s very valuable information for the public, and a ban would effectively end that transparency.
That said, while the ethics bill senators passed Friday includes fewer loopholes than either the rule they approved back in January or Ralston’s bill, it still lacks specificity as to how frequently legislators can accept gifts.
Public officials, the bill states, may not accept “a single expenditure with a value of $100 from a registered lobbyist or … group of registered lobbyists.” But if a meeting includes drinks, dinner and a ticket to a ballgame, does all that represent a “single expenditure” or (at least) three of them? Therein lies a significant difference, one that gets to the spirit of the message from those 1.25 million Georgians last summer.
It would be much closer to the spirit of that message to prohibit lawmakers from accepting more than $100 worth of gifts in one day — and no more than, say, $500 total in one year. For example, that might mean a $100 ticket to a ballgame, with the legislator buying his own food.
That scenario would require legislators to pay a little closer attention to the money being spent on them. It would be more palatable to the average Georgian. Which is, after all, the point of this exercise.
Combine that change with a broader definition of who’s a lobbyist — for reasons I’ve outlined before — and a compromise bill would take a big stride toward changing the culture under the Gold Dome.
It would also go a long way toward bridging the gap between the Senate’s cap and the House’s ban. And it would mean the bill that started in Ralston’s hands remained true to the goals he’s set out for our ethics laws.
– By Kyle Wingfield