A revised ethics bill met little resistance Thursday during its first hearing before a full House committee.
House Bill 142, sponsored by Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, makes sweeping changes to how lobbyists and lawmakers interact. The latest revision, presented to the Rules Committee, still bans lobbyist spending on individual lawmakers, and it tightens restrictions on lobbyist-funded travel.
Lobbyists could no longer pay for lawmakers to fly to events and could not pay for a spouse’s travel or lodging. Those restrictions, supporters said, would have largely prevented Ralston’s $17,000 lobbyist-funded trip to Europe in 2010, a junket that spurred calls for reform.
The bill also changes what’s required of citizen activists who seek to influence legislation. The latest revision would require them to register as lobbyists and pay a $25 fee, but would allow them to skip reporting rules required of regular lobbyists if they sign an affidavit vowing not to spend money on lawmakers.
Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who has carried the bill on Ralston’s behalf, said the speaker aims to create a “culture of compliance.”
“If you’re lobbying, not for yourself but on behalf of an organization, you have to register,” Golick said. “We have to know who we’re dealing with. If I’m so-and-so and I represent the association of fill in the blank, that person is a lobbyist and ought to register.”
House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, also emphasized that an average citizen who comes to the Capitol on his own to speak to lawmakers would not have to register as a lobbyist.
Despite the changes, concerns remain for some. While the newest version of the bill bars lobbyists from paying for plane tickets, the remaining travel rules and other exemptions still concern watchdogs.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said allowing deep-pocketed lobbyists to buy dinners for entire committees, subcommittees or caucuses does not represent a true ban.
“The bottom line is even this version of the bill doesn’t give what 1.2 million voters wanted and that’s a $100 limit on all gifts from lobbyists to legislators,” Perry said, referring to nonbinding referendums last summer in the Republican and Democratic primaries.
Citizen activists, such as tea party leaders Debbie Dooley and Julianne Thompson, continue to have concerns about the loopholes for spending on travel and group meals. The pair, who, along with Perry, have led the fight for reform, said they are still studying the changes to the definition of a lobbyist and were not ready to comment.