House speaker’s ethics reform bill looks like a poison pill for citizens
by Don McKee
February 01, 2013 12:16 AM | 1389 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Don McKee
Don McKee
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston touted his bill to ban lobbyists gifts to legislators as no “gimmick” but real reform. A more accurate term is “poison pill.”

Ralston’s HB 142, which came under immediate fire from grassroots ethics reformers, would broaden the definition of lobbyist to include apparently just about any citizen advocating for any issue with legislators — as this columnist previously indicated might happen. In addition, the bill would apply to all elected local and county officials in the state.

The bill gives this definition of a lobbyist: “Any natural person who receives compensation or provides services pro bono publico for advocating a position or agenda for the purpose of influencing the decision making of a public officer and who is neither subject to nor expressly exempted by any other provision of this paragraph.”

In other words, anyone who provides advocacy free of charge before any elected official in Georgia would become a lobbyist — a giant leap from existing law in which the primary definition of a lobbyist is someone who is compensated to advocate or oppose legislation. Lobbyists thus defined are required to register, pay an annual fee and report their expenditures to the state ethics commission.

This proposal by Ralston — who has defended Georgia’s existing law allowing unlimited lobbyist gifts to legislators — strikes at people pushing for ethics reform by what critics are calling an unconstitutional definition of lobbyist. For good measure, he included all elected officials in the state in the bill so that citizens would have to register as lobbyists and pay the $300 annual fee to advocate for a group or cause for free with their city council members or county commissioners.

The speaker, who announced his proposal at a news conference, was challenged by activist Catherine Davis who asserted, “Because I’m asking you to act ethically, you want to silence me by charging me $300?” As WSB-TV had it, Ralston replied, “I don’t know what the problem with registering is. You know, just register. Just be a lobbyist.”

It’s hard to believe that the speaker thought his bill would get through the General Assembly. Sharp opposition from members of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform greeted a House subcommittee chaired Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) on Thursday. Common Cause Georgia executive director William Perry pointed out that Ralston’s bill does not ban all gifts to legislators. Perry said, “There are more loopholes in this ban” than the $100 limit adopted by the Georgia Senate as part of its internal rules.

Debbie Dooley, cofounder of Atlanta Tea Party Patriots which is part of the ethics reform alliance, laid it on the line for the subcommittee: “The Capitol is the people’s house, and we’re your landlords. How dare you tell us we’re not welcome!”

Golick got the message. He said the lobbyist definition will be clarified. A good starting point will be to retain the existing lobbyist definition of someone who is paid — and drop the attempt to penalize citizens that want to talk issues with their legislators.

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