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Monday, January 14, 2013

New Senate rules include $100 gift cap that comes with its own set of loopholes (Update)

Don Balfour, R-Snellville, will likely step down as the Rules Chairman after the Senate Ethic Committee fined him $5,000 last August.
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Many think that state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, will step down as the Rules Chairman after the Senate Ethic Committee fined him $5,000 last August.
As the 2013 legislative session gets underway today, state lawmakers will soon begin to tackle the laundry list of issues down at the Gold Dome. One of the first things that the state Senate did was to approve its new rules, which include some ethics reforms.

The biggest change in the set of rules, which passed the upper chamber 48-5, comes in the form of a $100 lobbyist gift cap, which would help close the longstanding loophole that has allowed lawmakers to receive unlimited perks.

There's a catch, though, as ethics complaints may now only be filed by a "Senator, Senate staff, aides, or interns." In addition, filed complaints would remain confidential until an actual violation is determined by the Senate's ethics committee. In short, that would strictly limit private citizens' involvement in the ethics process.

As the AJC's Jim Galloway points out, the gift cap comes with some exceptions, which include:

(A) An award, plaque, certificate, memento, or similar item given in recognition of the recipient's civic, charitable, political, professional, or public service;

(B) Food, beverages, or event registration or admission made available to all members of the General Assembly, the Senate, or any caucus, committee, or subcommittee of such bodies or provided at activities to which said members are invited;

(c) Actual and reasonable expenses for admission, registration, food, beverages, travel, and lodging attributed to participating in events, seminars, or educational programs sponsored by or in conjunction with a civic, charitable, governmental, educational, professional, community, or business organization or institution where attendance is related to the Senator's official duties;

(D) Promotional items generally distributed to the general public or to public officers;

(E) Unsolicited items temporarily loaned to the Senator for the purpose of testing, evaluation, or review, if the Senator has no personal beneficial interest in the eventual acquisition of the item loaned; and

(F) Informational material, publications, memberships, or subscriptions related to the Senator's performance of his or her official duties..

In addition, Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville, is expected to give up his position. Many think that Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, is a leading candidate to take his spot. Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, also may be considered for the gig. We'll post an update once the upper chamber picks Balfour's successor.

UPDATE, 5:45 p.m.: The AJC reports that State Sen. Mullis has moved into the offices of the Rules Committee chairman this afternoon. Though not officially appointed just yet, Jim Galloway says: "That letter never did turn up. But Mullis' furniture is in the office of the Senate Rules committee chairman. And that means something."

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