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Revised legislation eases rules for volunteer lobbyists
Some argue bill is still too lax on lobbyist spending
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Volunteers who lobby infrequently at the Georgia Statehouse would be exempt from a proposal to tighten lobbying rules under a changed plan Thursday from a leading Republican.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he revised his proposal to make clear that people who volunteer as lobbyists for no more than five days a year will not have to pay a registration fee or report their spending.

His changed bill explicitly states that people expressing personal views to public officials are not lobbyists, eliminating earlier language that raised questions.

“It was never my intent to make people pay a fee for coming down here to see their own representative or their own senator, or if they come on a limited basis,” Ralston said in an interview. “Absolutely not the intent.”

The changes were unacceptable to Common Cause Georgia, one of the groups that earlier criticized Ralston’s plan as a curb on political speech.

“They are still attempting to tax and intimidate citizens who are exercising their constitutional right of free speech,” said William Perry, the organization’s executive director. “There is absolutely no reason why people who aren’t compensated and don’t benefit directly from legislation that passes should have to register.”

Gainesville Rep. Lee Hawkins said Ralston and other House members who are working on the bill are committed to the right of all individuals to have access to their legislator and discuss their issues.

“I don’t want to restrict the person who wants to speak to us on their own dime,” said Hawkins, R-Gainesville.

Like Perry, some tea party and other conservative activists criticized Ralston’s original plan because they said nonprofit organizations should not have to pay a fee as they seek to influence lawmakers.

A Baptist leader was originally concerned that clergy who come infrequently to the Statehouse to talk with state lawmakers could have been forced to register as lobbyists.

In a change, the proposed rules would not apply to local government. Ralston’s plan would lower the annual fees lobbyists must pay from $320 to $25, a response to those who criticized him for imposing costs on nonprofits or volunteer efforts. Lobbyists must pay an additional $10 for each additional client.

“I’m not asking people to commit an end-of-life act here,” Ralston said. “I’m asking people to simply wear a badge if you’re here on a regular basis advocating for or against legislation on multiple issues. That is the heart and essence of the definition of a lobbyist.”

A House subcommittee tweaked Ralston’s bill so that paid lobbyists must still register even if they are working for less than five days.

Ralston’s bill would still prohibit lobbyists from spending money on individual public officials in state government, though there are significant exceptions. Lobbyists could still pay for meals and registration at events where entire agencies, political caucuses or legislative committees are invited. Lobbyists could pay to send public officials and their staff to functions that relate to their official duties.

Freshman state Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, said the changes are a step in the right direction. It helps satisfy his freedom of speech concerns, he said.

“It clarifies who is a lobbyist a little better,” Barr said.

Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, would be required to register as a lobbyist under Ralston’s plan. She said rules requiring that lobbyists report their spending should not extend to unpaid citizen activists who do not spend money. She criticized the limits on what lobbyists can spend as too lax.

“There’s enough holes in a lot of that stuff that it reminds me of fishnet stockings,” she said.

Sarah Mueller contributed to this report.