Ethics loopholes closed by bills

Utilities workers given OK for donating to campaigns

ATLANTA --- The House of Representatives passed two bills Tuesday designed to close loopholes in the state's ethics law.

The bills would also allow utility companies and their employees to make campaign contributions for the first time and punish critics who bankroll anonymous attacks.

The bills both passed by wide margins and now head back to the Senate for it to agree to the House amendments.

One of the loopholes had existed in Georgia law for years, but it came into the spotlight last week when the state's ethics commission approved an advisory opinion concluding that lobbyists are not obligated to report what they spend trying to influence state employees.

Lobbyists have to file reports with the commission when they take an officeholder to dinner, a sporting event, bestow any other gift.

The chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee said Monday that the House leadership told him not to accept an amendment to close the loophole on Senate Bill 160.

The committee voted down the amendment and sent the bill on to a vote before the whole House. Then, the leadership did an about-face, sending it back to committee where the amendment was added.

Republican Whip Ed Lindsey, of Atlanta, told his colleagues Tuesday that House Speaker David Ralston was acting quickly to fix the problem of the loophole.

"When it comes to lobbying activities within this state, we will maintain our sterling reputation for full disclosure," he said.

SB 160 originated in the Senate to give utilities and their employees the ability to contribute to political campaigns or form political-action committees like any other corporation. They still would be barred from giving to candidates running for offices that regulate their industry, such as the Public Service Commission.

SB 160 passed 162-8 and returns to the Senate.

Another bill, SB 163, repeals a law enacted in 2008 that permitted campaigns to print materials and ads without disclosing on them who paid for them. For years, campaigns had been required to include the notice.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, argued for the repeal.

"There are some nasty techniques that are being used today," he said.

The bill also includes a House amendment that requires disclosure by individuals launching informal campaigns critical of a candidate or officeholder. Powell said it would have punished a state senator accused of sending e-mails in the name of a fictitious person that were critical of the lieutenant governor.

The House added another amendment on the floor Tuesday. This one, by Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Spring, exempts individuals from disclosure if they spend less than $500.

"If someone in my neighborhood wants to make a sign on their computer that says 'Earl Ehrhart stinks,' I won't like it, but I don't think it should be a crime," he said.

A coalition of tea party groups and ethics-watchdog groups called the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform had lobbied for closing the lobbyist-reporting loophole, but they wanted it done as an amendment to SB 163, the campaign-disclosure bill. The alliance objects to the bill to let utilities support political campaigns, arguing the companies already have significant influence in the Capitol.


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