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Ga. lawmakers reach deal on lobbying rules
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ATLANTA (AP) — Lobbyists could not spend more than $75 at a time on government officials under a deal reached Thursday by Georgia's legislative leaders on the last day of their annual session, senior lawmakers said.

If approved, the legislation would impose the first limits on what lobbyists can spend in Georgia. Lobbyists can now spend as much as they want to influence state legislators as long as they publicly report their expenditures.

The plan would tighten lobbyist registration rules, forcing people to register as lobbyists if they are paid to lobby or get more than $250 in reimbursements for their lobbying work. Votes on the legislation, which has not been publicly released, were expected later Thursday. An agreement came just ahead of a firm deadline amid the chaos of the General Assembly's final working day, called Sine Die. Any bills not approved by midnight Thursday automatically fail for the year.

"Sometime you just have differences of opinions with people, and sometimes it's more important that you do something rather than nothing," House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told reporters. "We've moved the ball down the field. For the first time, we do have a limitation on spending — and I think that's important."

Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer, R-Duluth, said the plan also would ban lobbyists from spending money to entertain lawmakers.

"It dramatically strengthens Georgia's ethics rules," he said.

Tightening lobbying rules was one of several big decisions expected Thursday. A legislative negotiating team reached an initial agreement early Thursday on a $41 billion budget for the financial year starting in July, one of the General Assembly's last remaining tasks. Separately, there were ongoing debates over gambling, tightening abortion restrictions and whether to allow students to carry firearms on college campuses.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate had long been divided on how to change lobbying rules. The debate intensified this summer after Georgia voters supported putting limits on lobbyist spending in nonbinding ballot questions. About 87 percent of voters in the Republican primary election — roughly 827,800 people — voted to support a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts. Nearly 73 percent of voters in the Democratic primary — about 423,800 people — voted in support of stopping unlimited lobbyist spending on lawmakers. That ballot question did not propose a specific limit.

Ralston has opposed restrictions on spending, saying it would encourage lobbyists to make expenditures without publicly disclosing them. But Ralston reversed course in August and backed a ban on lobbyist spending on individual lawmakers. His legislative plan left big exceptions, allowing unchecked spending on legislative committee, delegations and caucuses.

Meanwhile, the state Senate adopted in January an internal rule banning senators from accepting lobbyist gifts worth more than $100. That rule is weaker than the agreement discussed by lawmakers Thursday.

There also was an ongoing debate over the state's gun laws. House lawmakers earlier supported legislation allowing people with a license to carry weapons to take their guns onto the campuses of public college and universities, though not student housing or sporting events. It also would allow people who voluntarily received inpatient mental health treatment to get a license to carry a gun. Right now, probate court judges have discretion over whether to issue a license to those people.

By contrast, the state Senate adopted less sweeping firearms legislation endorsed by the National Rifle Association. A conference committee has been appointed to bridge the differences.

The heads of the state's colleges and universities are opposed to allowing guns on campus. Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, said House lawmakers are offering a compromise. It would allow people older than 25 to carry guns on campus if they had a license to carry a firearm. Students also could carry a gun on campus if they have a license, have received military training, and either currently serve in the armed forces or are honorably discharged. People age 21 to 25 with a license could carry on campus if they complete an eight-hour training course approved by the state.

It was not clear whether the Senate would accept that proposal.

Lawmakers changed the regulation of video poker and other similar coin-operated machines in the state, opening the door for some proceeds to be directed to the HOPE scholarship program. The legislation moves oversight of the machines to the Georgia Lottery Corporation and away from the state Department of Revenue. The bill had garnered opposition from anti-gambling groups, but supporters said the goal was to crack down on illegal gambling by making it easier to identify rogue machines.

The bill calls for five percent of net receipts to be retained and directed to the HOPE scholarship program, reaching a maximum of 10 percent over time.

"It does not make anything legal that was illegal before, and it does provide for the HOPE scholarship," said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.