The state House unveiled its latest plan for ethics reform Monday by adding new limits on lobbyist spending on committees and delegations, sending one of this year’s top issues back to the Senate with two days remaining in the legislative session.
The late-afternoon action on House Bill 142, in a 166-4 vote, came as Gov. Nathan Deal pressed the House and Senate to strike a compromise over dueling versions of ethics reform legislation even as supporters feared the differences were too vast to reconcile.
Both chambers seemed to acknowledge that pressure: By evening’s end, three House members and three Senate members were appointed to meet over the next few days to try to hash out a single version of the bill before the session ends on Thursday.
Still, the House put its original ethics plan back on the front burner along with a few of the Senate’s proposed changes and the new restrictions. Gone now is the Senate-backed $100 cap on lobbyist gifts, replaced again with the House’s plan to ban spending on individual legislators.
“We’ve made some tweaks to our original bill and sent that back over to them,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said of the Senate. “We hope they will respond as quickly as we have. I guess we’re in the two-minute warning. It’s late, but (I hope) that we can accomplish something we can get to tell the people of Georgia is honest-to-goodness ethics reform and it’s not something being driven by personal goals or special interest agendas.”
A strong reform measure is needed, Deal said Monday when he called the proposals a vital “step in the right direction” to bolster the public’s image of their government. He stopped short of supporting either of the competing plans.
“I do think it’s good for both bodies that they have very clearly defined ethics rules in place,” Deal said of the proposals. “I think it does something to restore public confidence in the legislative process.”
The fate of the ethics reform package will be one of the most contentious of the final hours of the 40-day legislative session. Legislative leaders have been negotiating behind the scenes, with Ralston visiting Monday with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in a Senate anteroom during a break. All involved know a failure could frustrate the governor and alienate a range of advocates who have rallied for stricter ethics guidelines.
The House’s version of the reform package calls for a ban on lobbyist gifts such as meals and football tickets, but it had included some big exceptions.
The original bill allowed lobbyists to spend unlimited sums on committees, delegations and other recognized groups. The House adopted changes Monday, however, that limit any committee or subcommittee to no more than two lobbyist-funded events a year. Delegations must have at least two members under the latest version. The House also adopted Senate language dealing with lobbyist-funded travel to limit it to trips within the United States.
Another part requires unpaid advocates representing groups on a legislative issue to register as a lobbyist if they come to the Capitol more than five days a year to press for legislative action on behalf of an organization. The new version completely eliminates the registration cost, however.
The Senate has taken a different tack. Its plan has a $100 cap on the value of such gifts, but with fewer exceptions than the House originally proposed. It also wouldn’t require volunteers to register to lobby, earning support from some groups who fear they’ll be faced with a flood of ethics complaints if they are forced to register.
Senate leaders vow to stick with their version. Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said the $100 cap allows a token show of appreciation — a cup of coffee or a basic meal — without flouting common sense. He noted that Democratic and Republican voters backed limiting lobbyist gifts in nonbinding votes last year, and the GOP question included a $100 cap.
“I think it’s an important part of relationship building, as you do at church, as you do in business — I think politics is no different,” Mullis said. “If you do a ban … we create an environment in which nobody wants to talk to each other because they’re afraid of being unethical. I think that’s a big mistake.
“The $100 cap is what the people voted for in the summer, and I think we need to listen to the people.”
As the clock ticks down, some advocates are expressing concern. The Atlanta Tea Party sent out a missive on Monday claiming Ralston may be attempting to stick to his position to try to defeat any changes, and urged its supporters to rally behind the Senate plan.
“The Senate version protects grass-roots activists and closes the numerous loopholes and would limit travel,” said the memo. “Even though it has a $100 cap, it is a much tougher bill and activists would not be afraid to buy their legislator a cup of coffee or even a bottle of water.”
Deal urged lawmakers to bridge the gap soon, lest they risk missing the deadline for the year.
“It’s going to require that the reporting side of things be more closely scrutinized but, yes, I do favor a cap: whether it’s zero or a $100,” he said. “And I think either would be a step in the right direction.”
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. As the Legislature wrestles with how to overhaul the system, the AJC will continue to provide in-depth coverage you will not find anywhere else.