Originally created 03/02/00

Bill would raise donation limits



ATLANTA -- Good-government groups are giving a mixed reception to a bill introduced in the Georgia House on Wednesday that would double the limits on campaign contributions to candidates for statewide office and the General Assembly.

While none of the organizations pushing for campaign-finance reform endorses raising contribution limits, some will support the legislation because of its other provisions, including requiring candidates to file campaign-disclosure reports electronically.

"We clearly are not in favor of increasing contribution limits," said Steve Alfred, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

But others can't swallow the contribution-limits provision and are vowing to fight the bill.

"Raising campaign contribution limits in Georgia ... is like pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out," said Robert Pregulman, director of the Southern field office for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "According to the convoluted logic of this bill, the way to reform our political system in Georgia is to allow a few wealthy individuals and businesses to contribute even more money to politicians."

The bill, based on recommendations from a task force appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes, would:

Allow candidates for statewide office to raise up to $16,000 per contributor during the four-year election cycle, up from the current limit of $8,000. Legislative candidates could raise up to $6,000 from each donor, double the current $3,000 limit for the two-year election cycle. Those limits could be adjusted by the State Ethics Commission, based on the rate of inflation.

Require candidates for statewide office to file campaign reports electronically, effective Feb. 1, 2001, if they have raised or spent at least $20,000 by that time. Candidates for the General Assembly, superior courts, district attorney and county or municipal offices would have to file electronically starting Jan. 1, 2003, if they have raised or spent at least $10,000 in an election cycle.

Require independent committees, which engage in campaign activity apart from political parties, to file campaign-disclosure reports.

Establish a new set of filing deadlines based on specific dates rather than the number of days before a primary or general election. Candidates also would have to file twice during nonelection years instead of the current annual requirement.

"Campaigns are getting very expensive," said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who is sponsoring the bill on Mr. Barnes' behalf. "The process is getting more expensive ... Individuals who run for public office ought to be able to raise the necessary money."

After a brief debate Wednesday between Mr. Smyre and House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, lawmakers voted 96-57, primarily along party lines, to engross the bill. That means it cannot be amended, only voted up or down in its present form.

Mr. Irvin, R-Atlanta, said the bill is complex enough, and potentially controversial enough, that it should be allowed an unfettered debate.

"Personally, I think the issue is really disclosure and not the amounts," he said. "But people have different opinions on it and deserve the opportunity to change that provision if they want to."

Mr. Smyre said he moved to engross the bill to head off any efforts to use the amendment process to tack ethics reforms onto the measure.

"Months ago, we made a decision as a commission not to go into the Georgia ethics law because we didn't have the time," said Mr. Smyre, who was a member of the task force. "Our charge was to deal with campaign-finance disclosure."

The bill will be taken up first by the Rules Committee, which is chaired by Mr. Smyre.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.