MARIETTA — Several Cobb lawmakers said they support Georgia House Speaker David Ralston’s suggestion of a ban on lobbyist gifts after an overwhelming majority of voters said they wanted restrictions on such gifts.
In the July 31 primary, 87 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats statewide voted in favor to nonbinding questions asking whether to end unlimited lobbyist gifts to legislators.
Following that vote, Ralston indicated his willingness to address the matter in January.
“Speaker Ralston plans to call on a working group of state House members to craft a bill that implements a prohibition on lobbyist spending on legislators, rather than to cap this type of activity at an arbitrary amount as some have proposed,” said Marshall Guest, Ralston’s spokesman. “This group will also look at other ways to further strengthen the state’s ethics laws.”
State Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) said she suspected Ralston heard the message loud and clear from the voters, “and I respect him for proposing legislation to limit lobbyist gifts. Any legislation would need to be tightly drawn so that there was no question about what would and would not qualify as a gift.”
State Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) said he would support the total ban on lobbyist gifts that Ralston is proposing as well.
“The $100 ban others proposed, while
well-meaning, was ultimately an arbitrary number that could have resulted in a mixed message,” Golick said. “Speaker Ralston’s reasoned and principled proposal establishes the gold standard on the issue of ethics.”
Hunter Hill of Smyrna, who won the Republican primary and will face state Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna) in the November general election, is concerned that an all-out ban would lead to under-the-table gifts.
“I would support a ban so long as there are other measures to ensure that anything that could be pushed underground is accounted for as well,” Hill said. “That’s why I would be more for a cap on a gift amount that is specific, but also had a legislative reporting requirement.”
Stoner said he would support a gift ban, although he pointed out the Singapore Ambassador David Adelman made such a proposal when he was in the Senate a few years ago. But until the legislature fixes the state’s ethics commission, Stoner said it doesn’t matter what law is approved.
“We have defunded the state ethics commission several times over the last few years,” Stoner said. “Last year, the state ethics commission could not send out certified mail — which is required by law — to notify folks who had violated basic reporting disclosure issues to collect over $1.5 million in fines because they could not afford to send out mail.”
Stoner sponsored a bill during the last session that would have restored funding to the ethics commission as well as have its members be retired judges who were appointed by the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and chief judge of the Court of Appeals rather than by the governor, speaker of the House and lieutenant governor. The bill went nowhere.
“I’m happy to see the speaker step up to the plate to offer this,” Stoner said. “I would support such a proposal, but at the end of the day unless we deal with this issue of an independent ethics commission that has guaranteed funding, the chances of us actually being able to enforce those rules is not very good.”
Yet Charles Gregory, who unseated state Rep. Judy Manning (R-Marietta) in the July 31 Republican primary and is expected to take over her seat in January, said he opposes a lobbyist ban for constitutional reasons.
“We’re all concerned about ethics down at the Capitol, and the bottom line is we don’t want legislators whose votes are for sale, we want legislators who represent the people.” Gregory said. “There’s several problems with the legislation. First of all, the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, and discriminating against a certain class of people, regardless of the popularity of the idea — because we can all understand why it’s a popular idea — it’s still a breach of the Constitution, and the Constitution is there to protect the rights of the individual and minorities all the time. You can’t just pick and choose.”
Marietta attorney Chuck Clay, who served 12 years in the General Assembly before becoming a lobbyist, has experienced the gift topic from both sides.
“In a very selfish vein, it would certainly make things a lot easier on the lobbying side of things if you knew exactly what the rules are, which is if you can’t do anything that’s fine,” Clay said. “It would save me a lot of money and at the same time make the rules clear and simple. When it gets down to ‘does Chuck Clay spend X amount of dollars on behalf of my client to take John Doe legislator out to dinner,’ I would be just as well-served if you couldn’t do it at all.”
As part of their jobs, lawmakers get paid in three ways. One is their salary, which $17,341. They can also spent up to $7,000 each legislative year from their expense reimbursement account, for such expenses as an aide, office furniture or property taxes. Finally, they receive a per diem payment of $173 for the 40-day legislative session, as well as for any committee days held outside of the session, according to the General Assembly’s Fiscal Office.