"The Speaker unfortunately fell back into the patterns of the past," CCG executive director Bill Bozarth said. "He crafted a new bill, which was purportedly to promote transparency, in the secrecy of his office.
"While the Speaker presented the bill himself, there was no debate on the contents of the bill, and all amendments, including a proposal to limit lobbyist gifts, failed on a party line vote."
The main problem, Bozarth correctly said, is the failure of Ralston's bill "to address substantive areas." It also failed to include all the reforms in HB 920 sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard and more than 40 legislators from both sides of the aisle.
Even worse than the bill's omissions, Common Cause Georgia's analysis of the bill "uncovered several changes that actually weaken the current law," Bozarth said.
"As we read it, the bill would: 1) Remove the requirement for members of boards and authorities to submit financial disclosures; 2) Exempt from disclosure lobbyist gifts for travel, meals, and accommodations by legislators attending meetings; and 3) Eliminate dependent children information on disclosure statements."
The watchdog organization asked sponsors of the Speaker's bill: "How can this bill be presented as increasing transparency when it has at least three areas where we seem to be cutting back on reporting requirements?"
CCGA opposes the new provision to assess attorney's fees against a complainant if the state ethics commission decides a complaint is frivolous or the complainant fails to appear at a hearing. The commission can now dismiss frivolous complaints administratively and allowing assessment of fees "creates a significant risk of chilling the ability of concerned individuals to brings complaints to the commission."
Ralston's proposal to allow lobbyists not to report spending on gifts of travel, lodging and related expenses "opens a giant loophole" and "is a giant step backward, and flies in the face of promises made to improve transparency of lobbyist activity," CCGA said.
"To exempt this type of disclosure is the exact opposite of what the citizens of Georgia have clearly asked for, and of what should be provided - a cap on lobbyist gifts to legislators. Under the provision as written, not only will lobbyist gifts remain unlimited, but a major category would go unreported. Travel expenses for legislators and others to attend meetings should not be excluded from reporting."
The Speaker's bill needs to incorporate some of the reforms in HB 920, especially limits on lobbyist gifts to legislators and campaign-to-campaign contributions, said CCGA. "One of the worst loopholes of all allows leftover campaign funds to be transferred to PACs controlled by the candidate, essentially removing any restrictions on what can be done with campaign funds."
Now the people of Georgia must look to the state Senate to salvage ethics reform from Ralston's Retreat.