Gov. Nathan Deal signed an ethics overhaul into law Monday that imposes Georgia’s first-ever limitations on gifts to public officials, and he hailed the move as a watershed moment shoring up the public’s trust of its elected leaders.
The new rules place a $75 cap on dinners and many other gifts lobbyists typically lavish on public officials, but vague language and confusing exceptions have prompted unresolved questions about what the changes mean and how they will be enforced.
» SEE IT: Take a look at HB 142
Those answers may not come into focus until well after the law takes effect in January 2014, when the state ethics commission will begin developing rules to guide lobbyists and public officials. Deal and House Speaker David Ralston both pleaded for patience and all but ruled out making more significant legislative changes next year.
“It’s important to give this legislation a chance to operate and see what its implications are,” Deal said, “and then if it’s not adequate, those same concerns that led to this legislation will perhaps find their way to be addressed later on.”
Some lawmakers who don’t think the effort went far enough vowed to push for more changes regardless. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said the newly minted law was a “big step forward” but only the beginning of the debate.
“We are still going to be pushing on it, but it takes some of the pressure away from the issue,” he said. “We’re going to have to see how the public reacts to what has been passed.”
The signing came after large majorities of voters from both parties favored limiting gifts in nonbinding ballot questions and heightened press coverage of the debate, and the attention has already led to sharp reductions in lobbyist spending.
As they have throughout the year, the governor and his allies on Monday depicted the legislation as a media-driven issue that is nonetheless necessary to boost the public’s perception of its elected leaders.
“The issue of ethics reform is something that you as members of the media have led the charge on, and I believe the public has responded accordingly, thinking that we did need to do more,” Deal said at a no-frills ceremony at the Statehouse, as students on a field trip clamored overhead.
There was little doubt that Deal would sign the legislation, as well as a separate bill outlining new standards for campaign fundraising and spending reports. He had made the passage of lobbyist gift limits a legislative priority, even threatening a special session if the two GOP-controlled chambers couldn’t compromise by the end of this year’s 40-day session.
Ralston, once an opponent of limiting lobbyist gifts, sponsored the legislation and helped negotiate its final passage with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate leaders. At Monday’s ceremony, Ralston called the changes a “historic” move to maintain the public’s trust.
“It was always more of a perception issue than an actual issue,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, “but sometimes we have to deal with perception, and I think we did that in this case.”
The gift limit bill, House Bill 142, passed in the waning hours of the 2013 session after months of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers over competing plans. On the eve of the legislative session’s final day, Deal warned House and Senate leaders he would call them back in to a special session if they couldn’t compromise on a plan.
Even with the looming threat, it was no certainty both chambers would pass an overhaul given the gulf between the two plans: a House version that would have eliminated most gifts to individual lawmakers but included numerous exceptions and a Senate plan with a $100 cap on expenditures but fewer loopholes.
The new ethics rules they cobbled together cap gifts from registered lobbyists to government officials at $75, allowing lobbyists to continue buying lawmakers meals and drinks as long as the tab for one expenditure doesn’t exceed that amount. It also opens the door for multiple lobbyists to spend hundreds of dollars on a single lawmaker.
Although the law doesn’t take effect until January, the promise of its passage has already had a profound impact on the culture of the Gold Dome.
Spending on public officials has fallen significantly over the past year, a sign that lobbyists and lawmakers already are factoring in a new era of more restrained behavior. Last month, lobbyists reported spending $13,013 on public officials — a 66 percent drop over the same period last year. Spending for the year is down 36 percent over 2012.
Jet Toney, who chairs the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association, said his organization is compiling a list of dozens of questions to present to the state ethics commission. They include whether attorneys are required to register as lobbyists and whether lobbyists can split checks for dinners that cost more than $75.
“The regulated community needs significant clarification on several elements of the new legislation,” he said.
Ralston and Deal said those questions will be hashed out with time. For now, Deal said, he views the new law as a “step toward ensuring we continue to have good government.”
“Our success as leaders of this state depends heavily on the public’s ability to trust us,” Deal said, “and we cannot expect them to honor our laws or to elect us to do further good for the state unless we have put into place measures that let them know we have their best interests in mind.”
House Bill 142, limiting gifts lobbyists may give to public officials, passed both chambers the final night of the 40-day session. Here’s a glance at what the bill would do:
- Limit gifts of food, beverages, travel and lodging to $75 or less per lobbyist.
- Ban sports and entertainment tickets as gifts, but officials may purchase them at face value from lobbyists.
- Ban “recreational or leisure activities” such as golf.
- Allow lobbyists to pay for annual committee dinners and events for caucuses, but not subcommittees or local delegations.
- Anyone receiving pay or reimbursement of more than $250 while attempting to influence legislation must register as a lobbyist.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the push for ethics reform every step of the way with investigative reporting looking into how our public officials interact with lobbyists, where the system fails and how other states have done it better.