ATLANTA — When House Speaker David Ralston traveled with his family and chief of staff to Europe, a lobbyist picked up the $15,000 tab for their air and train fare. Senate President Tommie Williams had a lobbyist pick up $5,000 in golfing fees when he teed off at a resort on the Georgia coast.
While the two apparently had no problem accepting the gifts, their constituents appear less than happy with the no-limit spending on state lawmakers. More than 81 percent of voters in the Republican and Democratic primaries Tuesday supported putting some kind of limit on the gifts lawmakers can receive.
Still, it remains to be seen whether those nonbinding ballot questions goad lawmakers into setting up restrictions when the General Assembly reconvenes next year.
Georgia is among a minority of states that permit lobbyists to give as much as they want to lawmakers. In theory, a lobbyist could park a brand new sports car in a lawmaker’s driveway and hand over the keys if the gift was properly disclosed.
SEN. JOSHUA MCKOON, R-Columbus, said he intends to file legislation next year that would set a cap after his attempt failed this year. He intends to ban any lobbyist from spending more than $100 daily on a lawmaker, though the details have not been finalized.
McKoon pressed Republican leaders to put the question on the ballot, and it could give him political leverage against his opponents. Just one day after the election, McKoon said supporters were tallying exactly how many people voted for a gift cap in every legislative district. He plans to send that information to lawmakers in a letter asking for their support.
“They’ll know exactly how many of their constituents … voted to move this forward,” McKoon said.
Ralston, a Republican, represents a north Georgia district that includes Gilmer and Fannin counties. On Tuesday, 87 percent of GOP voters in Gilmer supported a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, while 85 percent of Republicans backed it in Fannin.
Chris Steck, a 56-year-old from the strongly Republican suburbs ringing Atlanta, is an example of the sort of GOP voter who could spell trouble for opponents of a cap. He voted in favor of lobbying restrictions Tuesday.
“I think that people get influenced,” Steck said. “You see it in private business. If people are getting gifts, then you can’t help but be biased in your decision-making capability.”
Ralston did not respond to a request for comment. Ralston spokesman Marshall Guest said Monday that the House speaker would prefer giving the state ethics commission more power and autonomy to police lawmakers.
“The speaker continues to advocate for true ethics reform, but has serious reservations about supporting gimmicks cloaked as ethics reform and sold to Georgians as a way to help restore the public’s trust in government,” Guest said in a statement.
ONLY A HANDFUL of states impose no limit on lobbyist gifts. Limits on lobbyist spending vary widely, but most states impose some restrictions on gifts, whether an outright ban in New York or a $10 annual cap in Arizona, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lobbyist Wayne Garner, a former state senator, said he considered a $100 cap reasonable. He did not believe it was a cure-all.
“I think there’s a tremendous distrust of people in government, whether that’s at the state or the national level,” he said. “And if you do this, I don’t think that solves that issue of trust.”
Political shifts might favor the passage of a lobbying cap in the Senate. This year, McKoon’s bill was assigned straight to the Senate Rules Committee, a sign that legislative leaders wanted to defeat it. The bill never got out of the Rules Committee and failed when the session ended.
RULES CHAIRMAN Don Balfour, however, found himself the subject of an ethics complaint for claiming state pay on days that lobbyists reported feting Balfour at out-of-state functions, which is against the law. McKoon sits on a legislative committee that is investigating Balfour.
Under criticism going into the election, Balfour signed a pledge to support a lobbying cap. So have other key Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, who is leaving his leadership post next year but will remain a lawmaker. Another new backer is Majority Leader Chip Rogers.
The bill’s prospects in the House seem bleaker because no member of Ralston’s leadership team would pledge to support limits. Republican Rep. Tommy Smith, who sponsored the bill this year, could not get it out of committee. He did not seek re-election.
“I think the General Assembly should respond to what the people have said,” Smith said. “And if the members have any doubt about how the people felt, then I think this election made it crystal clear.”