Until last week, Georgia had been one of only three remaining states that put absolutely no limits on how much money lobbyists could spend to influence the passage or defeat of legislation in a General Assembly session.
Gov. Nathan Deal removed Georgia from that list when he signed the ethics revision bill into law.
It’s easy to criticize legislators for their reluctance to derail this lobbyist gravy train that so many of them have ridden over the years, but in fairness, there are some commendable aspects to the new law.
For the first time, there will be a limit on what lobbyists can spend when they entertain a lawmaker: $75. Legislators can no longer accept tickets to concerts or sporting events unless they pay the face value of the ticket.
Lobbyists will not be allowed to pay for legislative trips out of the country. This provision was a response to the media uproar caused by the free junket to Europe provided by a lobbyist for House Speaker David Ralston and his family a few years ago.
No legislation is perfect and this particular ethics law has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese.
There is no limit in the new law on how many of these $75 gifts a legislator can accept. Several lobbyists could theoretically pool their resources and provide a lawmaker with something worth a lot of money so long as no individual lobbyist chipped in more than $75.
The practice of providing legislators with free airline travel upgrades – a tactic employed by Delta Air Lines, which has received special tax breaks from lawmakers worth millions of dollars – is held to be legal under the new law.
A section was added to the ethics bill that provides a loophole for attorneys. A lawyer can claim that he or she is "representing a client" and would not be required to register as a lobbyist.
The new law also does not take effect until Jan. 1, which means lobbyists can continue to spend unlimited amounts of money on legislators for the next few months. In fact, several lawmakers have been spotted at Atlanta Braves’ games in recent weeks using tickets supplied by lobbyists.
On top of all that, Ralston, who often blocked attempts to put limitations on lobbyist spending, still does not think that lobbyist influence is that big a problem.
Ralston attended the bill signing ceremony for the ethics legislation, which he sponsored, and told reporters: "Is there a cause and effect between (lobbyist) spending and legislative action? No. I don’t think there was a cause and effect."
The concerns about the new ethics law are valid ones, but the problems are not so bad that they can’t be fixed in future legislative sessions.
"It’s not ideal, it’s not everything I wanted, but it still represents progress," said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, one of the most persistent advocates for a limitation on lobbyist spending. "We all have work to do in this area. I’m intending to come back next year and seek some changes."
It may turn out that the loophole for lawyers will not be the problem that some people anticipate. There are numerous attorneys who now register as lobbyists such as Dan Lee, Skin Edge, Boyd Pettit, Brad Carver, Pete Robinson, Bruce Bowers, Robert Highsmith, Tom Harrold and others.
It will be an easy matter to see if these lawyers and their professional colleagues register as lobbyists for next year’s legislative session. If they do register, then I don’t think we will have to be too concerned about the lawyer exemption in the new law.
Despite all its flaws, the new ethics law is at least a foot in the door. The mere concept of a limit on lobbyist spending, however loosely defined, is now written down in state law.
Legislators will have the authority, if they choose to use it, to amend the spending cap and the law’s other provisions to put even more limits on what lobbyists can do.
If enough of these amendments can be made to the ethics law, it is possible that one day lobbyists really won’t have the kind of influence over legislators that they now enjoy. It is something to hope for, anyway.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.