It appears we have an ethics bill.
Speaker David Ralston just confirmed from the House side what the AJC had heard from senators earlier today. Namely, that the two sides, urged along by Gov. Nathan Deal, agreed in the wee hours of Thursday to a compromise between the two main* ethics bills they each passed earlier in the session.
The text of the bill has not yet been made available publicly, but the compromise appears to have been chiefly along two grounds:
First, the House agreed to drop its insistence on a ban on one-on-one lobbyist gifts to legislators and accept the Senate’s preference for a cap — albeit a cap of $75 rather than $100. In exchange, the House won more carve-outs it included in its original version of the bill, HB 142. Those exceptions include gifts (think meals) provided by lobbyists to entire caucuses, the nature of which is subject to approval by each chamber’s ethics committee, as well as allowances for spouses and staff members to accompany legislators on official business underwritten by lobbyists (think conferences held on the Georgia coast or elsewhere).
Second, the Senate moved significantly toward the House’s position regarding who must register as a lobbyist. Anyone who is compensated by the entity for which they lobby must register, as must anyone reimbursed by an organization for more than $250 of lobbying expenses in a year. That last provision about reimbursements is intended to exempt some citizen activists who believed they’d been targeted by House leadership in retaliation for their agitation about ethics.
In all, Ralston said he didn’t get everything he wanted but it was “better to get something than nothing.”
Is he right?
I think so. In some respects, either the House bill or the Senate bill would have been stronger than the compromise bill. Certainly, I would have preferred to see an aggregate cap on gifts if legislators are going with a cap instead of a ban.
But — assuming there are no unpleasant surprises in the final text when we finally see it — this bill will “move the ball down the field” a bit, as Ralston put it. Having a limit trumps not having a limit, and this measure will preserve a degree of transparency about where lobbyists think it’s worthwhile to spend a little money on lawmakers. I think that’s useful for the public.
And nothing says we can’t keep pushing for more progress next year.
*HB 142 was not the only ethics bill passed this year. HB 143, relating to campaign contribution disclosure, was also passed by each chamber. The best part of the bill was a requirement that lawmakers disclose donations made in the days before the start of a legislative session, which currently can wait until after the session ends for disclosure — an obvious lack of transparency when bills are being passed in the meantime.
But the Senate added a provision disallowing non-legislators from raising money during legislative sessions; currently, only people who have already been elected to office face that restriction. Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, called the provision an effort to “level the playing field.” Others called it “incumbent protection.” I agree with the latter sentiment, and it’s my understanding the bill is unlikely to pass this year.
– By Kyle Wingfield