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House bill bans gifts by lobbyists
Proposal makes some exceptions for travel, food, beverages
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State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, endorsed ethics legislation Tuesday that includes banning most lobbyist spending on individual elected officials in the Georgia General Assembly.

Some of Hall County’s lawmakers said they support the speaker’s bill.

“If it restores some of the faith in the system, I think it’s good, said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said she’s pleased with the initial version, but hopes to work with members to strengthen some of the language.

“It is essential that the public trust be maintained and that citizens have confidence in those they elect to govern,” Ralston said at a press conference.

Ralston’s position changed after roughly 81 percent of Georgia voters, more than 1 million people, voted last summer in favor of limiting lobbyist spending in nonbinding questions on the Republican and Democratic primary election ballots. The legislation calls for a complete ban on gifts of tickets to entertainment events, including athletic, sporting and musical functions. It also broadens the scope of the law to include all elected officials and restores rule-making authority to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Abrams said she thinks the bill better clarifies who is considered a lobbyist and the requirements for who must register as one. She said it’s hard to identify the people who come in occasionally to try to influence lawmakers.

“I think it begins to capture a number of groups,” Abrams said.

Right now, lobbyists can spend as much as they want to influence lawmakers and other officials as long as lobbyists disclose that spending. Abrams said it’s possible for the self-reporting system to be manipulated.

The proposed legislation would make some exceptions for travel and food and beverages. It would allow reimbursement for actual and reasonable expenses for travel to conferences and meetings, but excludes reimbursement for recreational activities.

In one notable case, a lobbyist paid $17,000 to take Ralston, his family and two others on a trip to Germany in 2010.

Closer to home, industry and professional groups commonly invite lawmakers to annual meetings at vacation destinations such as the Georgia and Florida coasts. Food and beverages, which could be one cup of coffee or a cold beer, the speaker said, would be allowed at events where all members of the General Assembly, the House, the Senate, a standing committee, subcommittee, or all the caucus members of either party are invited. Those committees have major sway in the Capitol and decide whether legislation worth millions of dollars to industries and other interests gets rewritten, quashed or sent to the House or Senate floor for a vote.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he was happy to hear the House had introduced ethics legislation. The state Senate passed an internal rule earlier in the year that prohibited gifts worth more than $100 to legislators, which Ralston called a “gimmick.” That rule contains many of the same provisions in Ralston’s bill.

Miller said ethics reform was introduced in the Senate last year but it never made it out of committee.

“I was one of only eight senators willing to sign the legislation,” he said. “I not only talked the talk, I walked the walk about ethics.”

Ralston said the choice was to have an open and transparent system of full disclosure or one that totally bans spending on individual members and other elected officials by registered lobbyists. The bill would also reduce the amount of paperwork for locally elected officials who raise or spend less than $2,500 from filing reports with the transparency and campaign finance commission.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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