Georgia lawmakers face looming deadline on ethics proposals

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ATLANTA — As the Georgia General Assembly’s legislative session winds toward a close, members of a key Senate committee next week will consider a plan from House Speaker David Ralston to limit lobbyist spending.

The Senate Rules Comm­ittee is scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss legislation from Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, that passed the House earlier this year.

The two-bill package would generally prohibit lobbyist spending on individual state officials, including lawmakers, though it contains significant exceptions. Under the plan, lobbyists could still pay for lodging, meals and travel expenses – though not airfare – when lawmakers travel to events related to their official duties. It would also allow lobbyists to buy meals for groups of lawmakers meeting in committees.

Georgia currently sets no limits on lobbyist spending. Those seeking to influence lawmakers can spend as much as they want as long as they publicly disclose their expenditures.

It remains unclear how the Senate will react to Ralston’s bill. Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer has been close-lipped about it, saying only that he is confident the Senate will pass some form of ethics legislation. The Senate Rules Committee will hear testimony, not vote, during the meeting Tuesday morning.

“I would think there will probably be some changes to it,” said Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, who sits on the Rules Committee. He suggested that aspects of the bill could be tightened and questioned whether Ralston’s plan could be considered a real prohibition on spending.

In contrast to the House plan, Senate lawmakers adopted an internal rule this year barring members of the chamber from accepting gifts worth more than $100. That rule is relatively weak. It still allows lobbyists to pay to send senators on travel junkets to events, seminars or other education programs.

Critics warned a lobbyist could give a series of gifts in a single day totaling more than $100 while complying with the rule.

Watchdog groups pushing for an overhaul are still hoping for changes that would widen the Ralston restrictions, but William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said he is not privy to senators’ deliberations. He is critical of the exceptions in Ralston’s plan. He referred to a 2010 trip to Europe that Ralston, his family and others took on a lobbyist’s tab.

“If you take away airfare, Speaker Ralston’s trip to Europe is a $13,000 lobbyist expenditure instead of a $17,000 lobbyist expenditure,” Perry said.

Ralston has not always favored spending limits. He earlier said spending restrictions would drive lobbyist spending underground, where it cannot be tracked by the public. Ralston changed course last year after the issue was placed before Georgia voters in separate nonbinding ballot questions in the Republican and Democratic primary elections. Roughly 81 percent – more than 1 million people – voted in favor of limiting what lobbyists can spend.

Perry also took aim at a second Ralston proposal that would allow local politicians to file their campaign finance reports with local governments, meaning they might not be available online in a single online state database. Perry said his group has no problem allowing local candidates to file campaign data with a local office. But the documents should still be widely available electronically, he said, or there’s no real transparency.

“The amount of money that’s poured into influencing the outcomes of issues at that level is very significant,” he said, noting the influence of county commissioners and city council members over zoning and development questions, in particular. “Think about Chatham County (Savannah) alone and all the development around the port,” Perry said. “The public should be able to see what every county commissioner has accepted there.”

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