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State Senate approves controversial new ethics rule

Change caps gifts at $100

POSTED: January 14, 2013 11:22 p.m.

The Georgia General Assembly kicked off Monday with the Senate approving new ethics rules for its members.

The rules change puts a cap of $100 on a gift that a registered lobbyist or group of lobbyists can give to a senator.

Gifts include merchandise, events or meals, but there are also several exceptions to the $100 limit. Georgia is one of three states in the nation that has no cap on lobbyist gifts.

Ethics reform advocate Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said the amended rules were just the first step in writing new ethics laws that more effectively cut abuse. He is in the process of writing a bill, he said, but this was an important start.

“Today is the day that we begin to keep faith with the people of Georgia,” McKoon said at a press conference with the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, which included Common Cause Georgia, Georgia Conservatives in Action, Georgia Tea Party Patriots, Georgia Watch, and the League of Women Voters in Georgia. “This is a historic first step, and it is a first step, towards comprehensive ethics reform in this state.”

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, in a news release, applauded the Senate for passing the resolution.

“From the very beginning of my service at the Gold Dome, I have supported measures that promote government transparency and uphold the highest of ethical standards,” Miller said. “In fact, I was one of only eight or nine legislators to sign last year’s $100 ethics bill. Incorporating the $100 gift cap into Senate rules today was a positive step toward restoring the public’s trust and increasing government accountability.”

The approved change said that no senator shall accept a gift of more than $100 in value from a registered lobbyist or a group of registered lobbyists. However, the rule does include several exemptions, including awards, travel, food and beverages when available to all members of a caucus, committee or subcommittee, or when it is related to an event related to the senator’s official duties. Complaints will be reviewed by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Democratic senators criticized the new rule, saying the loopholes in it were so large they rendered it “nearly useless,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, caucus whip. Fort said the loopholes will allow lobbyists to give gifts under $100 to senators on multiple occasions or several times on the same day.

McKoon said the language of the new ethics rule wasn’t perfect, but it was a vast improvement on the status quo.

William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia said this rule would have prevented Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, from taking a $17,000 trip to Europe with his family three years ago. Ralston has proposed an outright ban on gifts from lobbyists and said the House will introduce a package of ethics reforms.

The resolution, approved by a wide margin, also returned some responsibilities to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle that were removed under the leadership of former President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, and former Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock.

Senate members on Monday approved the composition of the Committee on Assignments, which includes Cagle, newly elected President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, new Majority Leader Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, and two senators appointed by Cagle. The lieutenant governor is chairman of the committee. The change led to floor protests by Williams and Mike Crane, R-Newnan. Williams said Cagle is a member of the executive branch and not a member of the legislative branch.

“If we accept these rules as they are written, that is circumvented and all of us should just go on home because three people will decide what the state of Georgia does,” Williams said. “I will not stand for it. I will not serve quietly in a body that conducts itself in that manner.”

The House re-elected Ralston as speaker and re-elected Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, as speaker pro tem, the No. 2 job in the lower chamber.


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