Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) went before the Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs, to present his substitute for the House bill. The Senate version caps lobbyist gifts to elected officials at $100, versus zero in the Speaker’s bill and eliminates provisions allowing lobbyists to spend money on individual committees, caucuses or delegations.
The Senate bill would permit lobbyist spending only for events open to the entire legislature — for example, the highly popular annual Wild Hog Supper preceding the beginning of each General Assembly. But the bill would tighten travel spending, allowing lobbyists to foot the bill only for domestic travel related to an elected official’s duties, prohibiting lobbyists from paying for trips out of the country or for travel by a legislator’s family and staff — a la the famous European junket several years ago by Ralston with family and staff.
The Mullis bill makes another very important change from the House bill by restoring the definition of lobbyist to that of existing law. This was in response to concerns voiced at a public hearing by several citizen activists over the infringement on First Amendment rights in the House version. Citizen “lobbyists,” or citizens simply trying to persuade or inform their legislators about issues, would not be required to register as lobbyists or pay a fee. Only the lobbyists who are paid to lobby would have to register and pay a fee, same as now.
That’s the good part of the Senate bill along with the elimination of loopholes in the House bill. The not-so-good part is the $100 cap on lobbyist gifts, although Sen. Mullis pointed out that a whopping 87 percent of Georgia Republican voters backed the $100 cap in last summer’s primary with the non-binding question of lobbyist gifts. So the Senate has solid ground for its position.
But from the outset, the position urged by this columnist has been to cut the cap to zero — the best part of the House bill. There is simply no good reason to allow our legislators to accept gifts for doing the job they are elected — and paid by the taxpayers — to do. It is unseemly, unstatesman-like and unworthy of our public servants. It’s not that they are so susceptible to being influenced by lunches or dinners — but influence is what lobbying is all about. So why not avoid the very “appearance of evil?”
If the Mullis bill passes the Senate as expected, a Senate-House conference committee will be appointed to see if a compromise can be reached. In advance, here’s my strong recommendation for a compromise that will redound to the credit of both Senate and House: Cut the gifts to zero and go with the other provisions of the Senate version.
That would be a winner.