On the issues: Lobbying limits
What do the candidates for the county’s only contested General Assembly race, the campaign for House District 103, say about this issue?
Timothy Barr of Lawrenceville said he would consider signing the Common Cause pledge to cap spending. While he said he understands the need for lawmakers to talk to lobbyists, Barr said Georgia’s ethics laws have a lot of room for improvement, and he said spending money seems like an easy way to sway lawmakers.
“I’m not sure why, as a member of the legislature, somebody with a special interest is allowed to give gifts in the first place,” he said. “I can’t understand why a representative would be given these kinds of perks if they’re truly looking out for our interests ... because, as citizens, we don’t have lobbyists up there for specifically our interests.”
Ken Russell of Flowery Branch doesn’t think he’d have a problem with the pledge and says he would support legislation to cap lobbyist spending but wants to look at it first.
“I’ve often wondered ‘why?’,” Russell said. “Why do our elected officials accept these sort of things and what is the quid pro quo here?”
Russell said he doesn’t understand why lobbyists and lawmakers can’t discuss an issue in the cafeteria across the street from the Capitol. If the current proposal doesn’t pass, Russell has another proposal.
“If you accept a gift, then you have to declare it, report it (to the state or the Internal Revenue Service) ... and if you fail to do so, the penalty will be a felony,” he said. “That might make it more effective.”
Ever since Georgia Republicans agreed at last month’s state convention to survey primary voters on limiting lobbyists’ spending, GOP lawmakers have climbed on the bandwagon.
The outcome of the referendum seems to be inevitable.
In the last two weeks, more than 60 General Assembly candidates, many who have resisted such reforms in the past, have signed a pledge to sponsor legislation that would cap a lobbyist’s gift at $100, if they are re-elected.
No returning member of the Hall County delegation — none of whom faces major party opposition in a bid for re-election — has signed the pledge, but agree the issue will come up next year.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said last week he plans to form a Senate study committee on ethics reform later this year.
William Perry of Common Cause Georgia doesn’t just call it a shift in attitude. He calls it a “tsunami.”
Perry is the executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group that for years has pushed to restrain lobbyists’ spending. The group recently rallied behind a report that ranked Georgia’s ethics laws the worst in the nation.
Though a number of lawmakers disputed the report, it wasn’t the first time Georgia’s lobbyist-lawmaker relationship drew concerns.
In 2009, Speaker Glenn Richardson resigned from the General Assembly amid allegations of an affair with a utility lobbyist while lawmakers were considering legislation to benefit her company.
In 2010, media reports emerged that Richardson’s replacement, Blue Ridge Republican David Ralston, had taken a lobbyist-funded trip to Europe over Thanksgiving week with his family.
Last week, the Atlanta Journal Constitution detailed more than $22,000 in tickets to sporting events given to Republican Sen. Dan Balfour of Snellville over six years.
Balfour also is under scrutiny by the Senate Ethics Committee, which determined Friday that there is “substantial cause” to investigate allegations he violated the Senate’s per diem policy.
Balfour, who has served in the Senate since 1993, is the chairman of the Rules Committee, which has final say on which bills reach a full Senate vote. The committee was the first and last stop for a proposal to reform ethics rules earlier this year.
That bill came from Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, in early February. Among its five co-sponsors were Flowery Branch Republican Butch Miller and Dahlonega Sen. Steve Gooch.
Along with the $100 limit, the bill also would have required the heads of state agencies to disclose their personal finances annually and show that none of their public business benefited their private interests.
“If you want to have transparency with the elected officials, I would think you need transparency with all officials as well,” Miller said. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Bill faded quickly
Of some 15 reported lobbyist-funded gifts Miller received this year, at least two would have topped the $100 limit. In February, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce paid for a $132 dinner for Miller and a staff member. The same month, the chamber gave Miller two tickets to the Atlanta Sports Awards banquet at a reported cost of $390.
When asked what influenced his decision to support a bill that would make such expenditures illegal, Miller asked: “How do you vote ‘no’ to ethics?”
But the bill didn’t make it to a vote. When it made its first appearance on the Senate floor Feb. 7, Cagle sent it straight to the Balfour’s committee. It never resurfaced.
“I didn’t hear anything after it was assigned to committee,” Miller said.
In normal legislative procedure, a new bill is read on the floor of the Senate and then delegated to a committee that deals with its particular subject matter.
If that committee approves of the bill, it sends it to Rules, which sets the calendar for floor votes.
Cagle’s decision to route the bill through Rules seemed the best way to deal with “a complex and complicated issue,” said his spokesman, Ben Fry.
But of the 25 bills that were sent that route in the 2011 and 2012 legislative session, only one made it out for a vote; 16 were never considered.
As a state senator in 2004, Cagle said he voted in favor of a $50 lobbyist spending cap, a measure that died in the House later that session.
Cagle, speaking to a local civic club this week, said he remains committed to a promise to form a Senate study committee on ethics reform this year.
And when he qualified for re-election May 25, Balfour, who faces two Republican opponents in the July 31 primary, signed on to Common Cause Georgia’s pledge, promising to not only support but to sponsor of legislation that would limit perks.
Common Cause plans to mail the petition to every registered candidate this week.
Though a number of those who have signed the pledge haven’t backed ethics reform in the past, Perry is glad to have them on board.
“It doesn’t matter where they’ve been in the past, but it matters what they’re going to do next session,” Perry said.
It seems that what happened at the GOP convention in Columbus last month “created a tidal wave that is sweeping all of these guys to shore,” Perry said.
Rep. Carl Rogers, too, thinks ethics reform is “definitely” becoming a priority for the 2013 session, noting the public’s and media’s focus on the issue.
“We’ll have to come up with something,” said Rogers, a Gainesville Republican.
$100 limit questioned
But despite more than 60 candidate signatures on the pledge, no one’s calling the Common Cause proposal a done deal.
Perry said Georgia is one of three states that allows unlimited lobbyist spending. He said the $100 limit would put the state’s rules more in line with the rest of the country and still allow lawmakers to play golf or have a nice meal with lobbyists while discussing legislation.
“We’re not going as far as many states are, but we are bringing that level of regulation to it, and if there is a need (beyond $100) that they feel is legitimate, then they can certainly use campaign funds to cover it,” Perry said.
Neither Rogers nor Oakwood Rep. Emory Dunahoo Jr. say they plan to sign the pledge.
Dunahoo said he’s gotten several emails from constituents asking him to consider it. But the Oakwood Republican says that even though he’s likely to support spending limits, he’s not sure $100 is the magic number.
Rogers said he’s likely to support reforms, but wants something more comprehensive.
And the most powerful man in the House, Ralston, hasn’t signed on, either.
Ralston’s spokesman, Marshall Guest, said the speaker sees the July 31 referendum on lobbyist spending in “spirit” as voters’ desire to see lawmakers continue to reform ethics laws.
In that vein, Guest said, the speaker agrees. What Ralston doesn’t agree with is the $100 limit, which Guest said may be manipulated.
“He wants to implement real ethics reform and not settle for gimmicks like this one,” Guest said.
Even Miller, one of the few to sponsor an ethics proposal earlier this year, said he doesn’t know if $100 is the right limit.
“Maybe it is or is not the right number, but the discussion has to begin somewhere,” Miller said.
Rogers concedes that there are “a few” under the Gold Dome who take inappropriate gifts from lobbyists, but he said any perception “that we’ve all been bought and sold” isn’t reality.
“(Members of the public) think that we’re taking money and putting it in our pockets and we’re not,” Rogers said. “I’m not. I can’t speak for everybody, but I’d say 95 percent of us are straightforward.”
Perry believes that most of the lawmakers under the Gold Dome are honest and ethical. He said state laws, however, make the state vulnerable to corruption.
“The problem in Georgia is that the bar of ethical standards is so low that it’s easy to fall over,” he said.
All about networking
Of the approximately 25 reported expenditures lobbyists made on Rogers’ behalf this year, at least seven would top the proposed $100 threshold.
The largest was a pair of suite tickets to an Atlanta Falcons game at the Georgia Dome. The tickets came from the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which reported it as a $492 expense.
The authority, which manages the Georgia Dome, often offers tickets to legislators. Rogers said he took his granddaughter to the game.
Lobbyists also bought Rogers and his wife, who works as his aide, six dinners during the legislative session, at costs ranging from $114 to $203.
Rogers, who said he turns down more invitations to lobbyist-funded outings than he accepts, said the dinners usually are more about networking and building relationships than pending legislation.
Most of the time, Rogers said, “we chit-chat about family and children; we’re not there talking about legislation.”
“I think it’s just part of the networking that goes on in state government.”
That’s how Dunahoo describes it, too.
“I haven’t seen the evil part of lobbyists,” he said.
While the freshman legislator said lobbyists approached him often in the halls of the Capitol about pending legislation, lobbyists reported spending less on Dunahoo than on other members of the Hall delegation.
State records show five lobbyists treated Dunahoo to meals over the course of the 40-day session, the costliest of which totaled less than $32.
“The few times that I was around lobbyists (outside of the Capitol), there might have been eight of us going out,” talking over appetizers, Dunahoo said. “I didn’t see it as evil. I saw it as educational.”
Dunahoo also said it helped him build relationships and determine who he trusted at the Capitol. He likened the practice to his business in trucking logistics, saying he often took prospective business associates to dinner.
“Not once in 30 years did that make my decision on rates or anything to do with business,” Dunahoo said. “It was to sit down, get to know that person, talk about their family, ask questions. With lobbyists, that’s what we did.”
Perry doesn’t dispute that, but says lobbyists will be just as friendly to any new lawmakers.
“This is about not only building relationships but currying favor,” Perry said. “Lobbyists use their current clients’ money to build these relationships — to buy these friendships — so when they do need something big down the line, they’re considered a friend.”
Dunahoo promises such spending would never cause him to vote against his principles. He said reforms should target those who abuse such access “instead of trying to tell each person that ‘you’re being treated too special.’”
Rogers prefers comprehensive reform that would include elected officials on all levels of government, judicial and local. And Rogers, who says he’s paid for lobbyists’ meals, said reports should include those as well.
Ralston and other lawmakers, in their opposition to the proposed reforms, have suggested that the spending limits might drive lobbyist spending underground.
Perry finds such concerns inconsistent.
“On one hand, they can’t say that ‘we don’t need a cap because we act ethically,’ and on the other hand say ‘if we have one we’re going to act unethically,’” Perry said. “It’s just a completely ludicrous argument.”