ATLANTA — The new $75 limit on lobbyist spending in Georgia may prove looser than its supporters initially hoped.
State lawmakers voted during their chaotic final session Thursday to set the state’s first restrictions on lobbyist spending. If the plan is signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, it would end a system allowing lobbyists to spend as much as they want as long as that spending is publicly reported.
After the vote, there were questions Friday on whether it still allows lobbyists to skirt the $75 cap and gives attorneys ways to avoid the regulations altogether.
Those questions are a product of the chaotic process. While the debate over lobbyist spending went on for months, the final legislation was not unveiled until just hours before the vote. It was negotiated by a six-man committee of lawmakers behind closed doors, giving other legislators limited chances to ask questions or make changes to the final draft.
“I’m not saying this was bad intent on anyone’s behalf, but when you have a process like we had in the last 40 hours, sometimes things slip through the cracks, and I think a fairly large loophole was created,” said Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), who pushed for lobbying limits but was not on the negotiating team. “What we’ll clearly need is a cleanup bill to fix some of those things.”
Legislative leaders acknowledged the bill was imperfect, a product of forced compromise between rival House and Senate plans.
“Sometimes you just have differences of opinions with people, and sometimes it’s more important that you do something rather than nothing,” House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) told reporters Thursday. “We’ve moved the ball down the field. For the first time, we do have a limitation on spending — and I think that’s important.”
Earlier plans made clear that public officials could not accept gifts such as meals, tickets or entertainment worth more than a specified value. However, the measure approved Thursday only limits what lobbyists can spend, not what public officials can accept. That could make it possible for two lobbyists to split the cost of a $150 baseball ticket for a single lawmaker without violating the law.
“Because it’s on the expenditure and not the gift, it allows the ticket splitting,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.
The plan contains other exceptions to the general rule. It would not set any total spending caps, meaning lobbyists can make multiple $75 expenditures on an official in a single day. Lobbyists could also spend as much as they wanted hosting events open to all members of the General Assembly, legislative committees and caucuses. After being criticized for those loopholes, legislative leaders added restrictions limiting the committee events to one annually and forcing all caucuses to seek approval from either the House or Senate Ethics Committee.
The bill would allow lobbyists to pay to send public officials and their staff on trips within the United States so long as it is connected to their official duties.
There was confusion Friday over whether the bill may allow lawyers to avoid registering as lobbyists. The existing law says that attorneys do not need to register if they are representing a client in an adversarial case before the state, for example, defending a firm in an administrative law case. The newly approved legislation appears to expand that exemption, saying that attorneys and their staff do not need to register if they are representing a client and not getting paid specifically to lobby. It makes no reference to ongoing legal cases.
Some legislators described that change as a minor amendment meant to clarify the law, but professional lobbyists worried it would allow attorneys to lobby without registering, abiding by spending limits and disclosing their expenditures. Leaders at Common Cause Georgia said they expect to ask the state’s ethics commission to clarify the issue using its newly approved rulemaking power.
“It certainly could be construed to give a waiver to attorneys,” said Jet Toney of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association.
Russell Sewell, a lobbyist for the State Bar of Georgia, said he did not believe the new wording would have any practical change on state law. Sewell said that under current law, clients can hire attorneys to review legislation and explain those proposals to others, including lawmakers, without registering as lobbyists. He said that if lawyers go beyond offering legal advice, for example, taking lawmakers to dinner and pressing them to support or oppose legislation, those lawyers must still register as lobbyists.
“I don’t think it gives lawyers any more ways to skirt the law than maybe existed before,” Sewell said. “I’ve always told lawyers who come down there if they’re down here all the time, they need to register.”
If signed by the governor, the new law takes effect Jan. 1.