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Monday, March 25, 2013

Gold Dome ethics reform remains unresolved with days to go in legislative session (Update)

The balls in House Speaker David Ralstons court
The fate of ethic reforms is on state lawmakers' minds this week as Sine Die, the final day of the legislative session, approaches.

At the moment, current ethics laws contain sizable loopholes. With only a few days left in the session, Gov. Nathan Deal has even called on state politicians to compromise and pass reforms.

Nearly two months ago, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, introduced two proposals addressing lobbyist gifts and how local candidates file campaign reports. The bills, he said, offered significant improvements that could help regain the public's trust. He added that the legislation would outdo the Senate rules that passed earlier this year, which he considered "more of a sun visor than a cap."

Critics, however, quickly pointed out that Ralston's bills were flawed. His complete ban on lobbyist gifts contained its fair share of loopholes, didn't apply to subcommittees, and remained lax on rules about travel for public officials. It also expanded the definition of a lobbyist to include just about any person with an opinion about a cause.

"Ralston has been completely disingenuous with his approach," Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry tells CL. "He criticized the [Senate] rules and then had same exceptions in his bill. [He showed] you can call something a ban and it can be worse than a gift cap."

Last week, the state Senate unanimously passed an amended ethics reform package that addressed some concerns - with its members calling Ralston's reform attempts "opaque" and "shameful." Among their changes were a $100 lobbyist gift cap. In addition, only professional lobbyists would have to register and pay a $320 registration fee, quelling concerns that regular citizen advocates would have to do the same.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, a strong advocate for ethics reform, acknowledged that revisions still failed to make the laws perfect. Nevertheless, he defended the reform package the upper chamber passed.

"We do however have a chance to take a real step forward in reducing the corrosive impact of unlimited gifts of unlimited value," McKoon wrote in a Peach Pundit op-ed. "This measure, along with the rule making authority being restored to the Commission is a big step in the right direction."

The House's forthcoming decision, McKoon added, will determine whether more than 1 million Georgia voters would receive the stronger ethics laws they asked for in nonbinding referendums last July. Perry thinks that the Senate's revisions, with the exception of the remaining travel loopholes, get much closer to the heart of the state's ethics problems.

"We liked the Senate version better even though it's a cap instead of a ban," says Perry, who thinks there's a "50-50" chance the House approves the reforms. "But it would be a huge mistake for legislators to walk away with nothing."

UPDATE, 6:10 p.m.: The lower chamber made another round of changes to the ethics reform package today. The state Senate's $100 gift cap was swapped out for a lobbyist spending ban on individual lawmakers, which included some of the loopholes that previously existed in the original versions of Ralston's bills.

This time, state representatives have sent back a slightly stricter proposal. For instance, delegations must have a minimum of not one, but two members. Meanwhile, committees and subcommittees are limited to two events per year that are funded by lobbyists. The legislation would also require citizen advocates to register after spending five days at the Gold Dome, but does not require them to pay the $320 fee required by professional lobbyists.

Ralston told the AJC: "We've made some tweaks to our original bill and sent that back over to them. We hope they will respond as quickly as we have. I guess we're in the two-minute warning. It's late, but (I hope) that we can accomplish something we can get to tell the people of Georgia is honest-to-goodness ethics reform and it's not something being driven by personal goals or special interest agendas."

The time was changed on this post following further developments of this story.

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