The state Senate is headed toward a vote Monday on rules capping the gifts that lobbyists can give senators, though the prospect of those limits becoming law appears dim.
A special Senate committee spent part of Wednesday discussing some of the finer points of the proposed rules during a meeting. In general, supporters have proposed banning lawmakers from accepting gifts worth more than $100 from lobbyists. The panel chairman, Sen. John Crosby, R-Tifton, said the committee intended to make clear that no gift could exceed the $100 limit, no matter how many lobbyists contribute toward it.
Gainesville Sen. Butch Miller said he would support a stricter ethics law than what Crosby is suggesting. Lawmakers are allowed per diem and a mileage allowance, so they don’t need to depend on lobbyists for meals, the Republican said.
“A $100 is too much to spend, but if that’s the bill, I will vote in favor of it,” Miller said.
Those rules are expected to get a vote when the Senate reconvenes Monday. Some Senate members said it could be the first piece of legislation taken up. If enacted, lawmakers who run afoul of the rules could be censured, fined or even expelled. Right now, there are no such limits.
“I’m very optimistic that the Senate is going to take action,” said Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, who has spearheaded the push for setting caps. “... We’re out in the Wild West, there’s no regulation at all.”
If enacted, the Senate rule capping gifts would stand until the General Assembly adopts a law to that effect. While McKoon and his supporters plan to introduce that legislation, it appears less certain to pass.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has maintained Georgia should keep requiring lobbyists to disclose their spending, but not set caps, which he argues will drive that spending underground. Ralston has called gift caps a “gimmick” and said that if voters are dissatisfied with their legislator’s behavior, they can solve that problem at the ballot box.
Still, McKoon has built political pressure for a change.
About 81 percent of Georgia voters, or more than 1 million people, voted in favor of limiting what lobbyists can spend on state lawmakers in separate ballot questions in the Republican and Democratic primary elections this summer. Afterward, Ralston promised to introduce legislation calling for a total ban on lobbyist gifts.
Senators also are considering giving low-spending local politicians an option to file their campaign finance reports locally.
Municipal officials have complained filing reports through the state’s central database is too cumbersome, and many of those officials fail to file or send reports late.
It’s unclear how many politicians are simply ignoring the reporting requirements. The state’s ethics commission is supposed to receive lists of local candidates from nearly 900 local election officials statewide, said Holly LaBerge, executive secretary of the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Only 540 of those officials have the computer codes necessary to send that information to LaBerge’s commission.
Of the roughly 540 election officials who have the necessary code, it appears 300 or fewer are regularly sending reports, LaBerge said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.