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Holt: Ga. House tackles lobbyist and ethics bills
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The House considered 40 bills and resolutions last week, as we closed in on what is known as “crossover day.” Crossover day is legislative day 30, and is the last day a bill or resolution can pass from its home chamber to the other chamber of the General Assembly. With hundreds of pieces of legislation now in the system, the competition to get bills across before the deadline makes for a frenzied atmosphere.

Far and away, the most important measures we considered were HB 142 and HB 143. These bills comprise Speaker Ralston’s ethics package. They have been offered in response to the clear mandate from the voters last summer, expressed in the primary election referendum about lobbyist gift caps that was passed by a lopsided majority. HB 142 is the primary bill, and includes the most direct answer to the referendum. To the point: the referendum proposes a $100 cap on direct gifts from lobbyists to individual elected officials — the bill bans such gifts altogether.  This would eliminate lobbyists taking individual officials out to dinner, as well as paying for tickets to sports events and for other entertainment/recreation.  The other place the bill substantively constrains spending is by ruling out the payment of airfare by lobbyists.  It would still allow payment for other travel expenses.

The bill makes significant changes in two other areas. First, it gives rule-making power back to the campaign finance commission. It also defines who is a “lobbyist,” and requires that such folks register (for a $25 fee, down from $300), and that they must wear an ID card if working on Capitol grounds or other state buildings. Basically, anyone who advocates on someone else’s behalf (paid or unpaid) is a lobbyist. Anyone who is expressing his or her own personal views, unpaid, for five or fewer days per year is not considered one.

The second bill, HB 143, also has several topics. With regard to legislators, it requires that any campaign contributions received between Jan. 1 and the start of a legislative session be reported within five business days of the start date.  Then the bill turns to officials of local governments. Their campaign finance reports will now be filed locally, rather than with the state campaign finance commission. This will remove more than two-thirds of the commission’s workload, which will allow it to accomplish its mission again (it has been so swamped in recent years as to be almost non-functional). Further, the bill will allow local officials to opt out of reporting. To do so, they will have to file a notice that they do not intend to accept more than $2,500 in contributions, nor spend more than $2,500. If they go over those limits, they will have to file the reports.

While the two bills comprise the most significant ethics revision of the last decade, I think there is more that should have been done, especially in regards to travel. I would also prefer the lobbyist definition be loosened to better avoid involving private citizens (there is some hope of the Senate doing this, which I will encourage). Nonetheless, the bills do offer significant advances, most importantly in terms of the direct gifts addressed in last summer’s referendum.  Thus I felt it was appropriate to support them. HB 142 passed by 164 to 4, and HB 143 by 167 to 0.

I’d like to mention one other noteworthy piece of legislation.  HB 210 ratifies an executive order by Governor Deal issued in June of last year. At that point, he suspended an increase in the motor fuel tax that would otherwise have automatically taken effect. The increase would have reflected what was a fairly temporary spike in the price of gasoline.  The bill passed unanimously.

On Thursday, Stanley Long of Covington was at the Capitol, and we discussed union related bills of concern to him.

You can reach Doug Holt at 404-656-0152 or