New state Senate rules adopted Monday set some weak limits on what lobbyists can give lawmakers, but those restrictions include big loopholes.
The new rules prohibit senators from accepting gifts worth more than $100 from a lobbyist or a group of lobbyists. While it is the first time either chamber of the General Assembly has restricted such spending, lawmakers can easily dodge the rules.
Industries and businesses can still pay to send state senators on pricey travel junkets to events, seminars or other education programs so long as their attendance is related to their legislative duties. Historically, those junkets can include travel to Florida vacation spots, the Georgia coast, even Europe, not to mention free rounds of golf, meals, entertainment and other expensive perks. The $100 cap does not apply to food, beverages or admission to events where all members of the General Assembly are invited.Senators caught violating the internal rule, which is not statute law, can escape punishment if they give back all or part of the gift.
"A lobbyist could give a $99 gift five times or however many times in the same day. Now that's a loophole of enormous proportion," said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who voted against the provisions. "Well, folks, you could take a trip to Germany with your family and that would be allowed under those rules."
Fort's comment was a jibe at Republican House Speaker David Ralston, who took a trip to Germany with family and staff in 2010 that cost a lobbyist thousands of dollars. He has promised to introduce legislation prohibiting lobbyists from spending money on individual members of the General Assembly and requiring more people to register as lobbyists.
"I think this is what happens when you play around with gimmicks and you're more interested in having publicity stunts than doing real reform," Ralston said, criticizing the Senate's plan.
Senate Republicans urged their colleagues to support the new rules. Apart from the weak lobbying cap, they also included changes that give back Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle major powers over running the Senate that he had lost to dissident GOP lawmakers.
"The state Senate of Georgia is taking the lead on ethics reform by implementing a gift cap in our Senate rules," said Sen. Ronnie Chance, the new majority leader. "We have listened not only to our colleagues, but also the citizens of Georgia."
Local senators Rick Jeffares, R- Locust Grove, and Ronald Ramsey, D-Decatur, did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Moves to curb lobbyist spending has languished in Georgia's State House. Last year, legislation seeking to enact caps failed without getting a single committee hearing.
Some pressure has built for action, largely driven by a coalition of government watchdog groups including Common Cause Georgia and conservative and tea party organizations. Over the summer, roughly 81 percent of Georgia voters, more than 1 million people, voted in favor of limiting what lobbyists can spend on state lawmakers in separate nonbinding ballot questions in the Republican and Democratic primary elections.
Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, who pushed for the changes, has said he will introduce legislation that would set further limits in law. He urged senators to vote for the rules as a starting point. He has used incremental steps, like the public referendum, to help force the political issue.
"Is it the ultimate solution to every single problem we have?" McKoon said during the debate. "Absolutely not. But is it a vital first step? And does it show leadership by this body and will it make significant changes? Absolutely, it does."
In related news, Sen. Ramsey was named the chairman of the Senate's Urban Affairs Committee.