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Georgia House approves ethics reform package

Push for changes followed F grade from State Integrity Investigation; Senate fate uncertain

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Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta

Wikimedia Commons/connor.carey

The Georgia legislature has taken a major step toward strengthening the state’s ethics laws by moving a package of reform legislation through the House. The two bills in the package would impose limits on gifts from lobbyists and restore powers to the state’s ethics enforcement agency, among other changes.

The measures, which are sponsored by Speaker David Ralston, attracted little opposition,  sailing through the House on Monday with just four dissenting votes. But their fate in the Senate remains clouded. In January, the upper chamber adopted a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts in a rule change that does not apply to the House. Ralston told reporters on Monday that he would not negotiate on changing his proposed ban on gifts to match the $100 limit that the Senate enacted. While some senators have called for passing the House legislation unchanged, others have sounded more cautious.

“I’m sure several of us are going to sit down and talk about where we go from here,” Senate Ethics Chairman Rick Jeffares told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Neither Jeffares nor Ralston could immediately be reached for comment.

Some advocates for stronger ethics laws have criticized components of Ralston’s initiative. The more controversial of the pair of measures passed Monday would enact a blanket ban on lobbyist gifts, which currently have no limits. But the legislation carves out large exceptions to the ban by allowing gifts to committees and reimbursement for some travel expenses. The bill would also require many unpaid, citizen advocates to register as lobbyists, a move that drew fire from both liberal and conservative advocacy groups.

The bills are part of a growing movement in the legislature to increase transparency and reduce the risk of corruption in the state. Georgia ranked dead last and received an F grade last year from the State Integrity Investigation, a state-by-state ranking of accountability and ethics laws conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

A coalition of reform groups has used the state’s poor showing to push for stronger laws. Last year, voters overwhelmingly supported two ballot questions that called for enacting limits on lobbyist gifts. A series of high-profile scandals also heightened voter awareness of the issue. In 2010, for instance, Ralston and his family went on a $17,000 trip to Europe paid for by high-speed rail lobbyists.

In a blog post written after the House voted on the reform package, William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said that with the exceptions written into House bill, lobbyists still would be able to spend about $13,000 on a similar trip.

After Ralston proposed the reforms in January, Perry told the Center for Public Integrity that the package was, “an old political trick with a poison pill.”  Perry said that while the bills include some worthy measures, such as restoring rule-making authority to the state’s ethics oversight body, the Senate is unlikely to pass the package as is.

The original proposal drew outrage from tea party groups because it included a new definition of who is a lobbyist to include unpaid advocates for a variety of causes. The final version was amended to address those concerns by reducing the fee for registration and exempting anyone who lobbies fewer than six days a year.

Kay Godwin, co-chairman of Georgia Conservatives in Action, said that even with the changes, the bill still discourages grassroots activism. “We have a first amendment right to voice our opinion,” she said. “You don’t send a message that we’re not wanted up here.”

Senate President Pro-Tem David Shafer last week told a University of Georgia panel that he was confident the two chambers would agree on a lobbyist gift restriction by the end of the session, which is not yet set but is expected to come before the end of April.