Ethics reform — Free speech should be free
February 10, 2013 12:00 AM | 1096 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Georgia voters across the political spectrum made clear last summer that they want ethics reform at the state Capitol. Democratic Primary voters were asked, “Do you support ending the current practice of permitting unlimited gifts from lobbyists to legislators?” Seventy-two percent said yes. Republican Primary voters were asked “Do you support ending the current practice of unlimited gifts from lobbyists to state legislators by imposing a $100 cap on such gifts?” Eighty-even percent of GOP voters said yes.

It’s hard to find a more clear-cut mandate for reform than those straw-poll votes. And state legislative leaders — many of whom had snickered at the need for such reforms prior to the primary — suddenly started to see the light. Also prodding them along has been the unusual coalition of advocacy groups from across the spectrum, from Common Cause on the left to the Atlanta Tea Party on the right.

The state Senate under Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has now prohibited senators from accepting individual gifts worth more than $100, although the new cap does not carry the weight of law and has been described by reformers as full of loopholes.

Meanwhile, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston unveiled his ethics reform plan in late January. He is proposing a complete ban on gifts to legislators, other than food and drinks served at events open to all members, caucus members or committee members. And lawmakers would be reimbursed for traveling to conferences at which legislative issues are discussed. Lawmakers also would have to pay for their own entertainment expenses. So far, so good.

But Ralston also is proposing to broadly expand the definition of who is a lobbyist. The initial version of his bill would have required all lobbyists to pay an annual $300 fee and file regular expenditure reports with the state ethics commission. It would not have mattered if the citizen in question was a high-paid representative of a political action group or just an ordinary housewife who travels once or twice per session to the Capitol hoping to buttonhole a lawmaker about education reform, immigration reform, DUI legislation or some other issue. That housewife would have been considered a lobbyist under Ralston’s initial proposal, unless she was talking only to her own legislators.

That provision quickly — and deservedly — came in from heavy criticism from many quarters.

Atlanta Tea Party Patriots cofounder Debbie Dooley was scathing in her remarks.

“The Capitol is the people’s house, and we’re your landlords. How dare you tell us we’re not welcome!”

The speaker was quick to realize that he had overreached and revised his proposal on Thursday in an attempt to improve it. The new version specifies that only those who volunteer or work as lobbyists for more than five days a year would have to register and file disclosure reports. Those who go to the Capitol to share their personal views (not as representatives of an organization) would still be free to do so. And the annual registration fee for lobbyists would be scaled back to $25 from the $300 first proposed.

That’s definitely an improvement from Ralston’s first version, but still leaves a bit to be desired. We’re all for requiring lobbyists to disclose who they are, what they spend and whom they spend it on. And we realize that governments routinely charge all sorts of licensing fees. But why should citizen activists who cross the five-day threshold have to pay a registration fee to talk to legislators on behalf of their organizations? Many of those activists are unpaid, even though they might be the head of an organization and have a fancy title. And there are plenty of organizations with big names but small memberships whose volunteer leaders would have to “pay to play” under the latest version of the bill.

As local columnist Don McKee put it on Friday, it can be argued that the speaker’s latest proposal amounts to a “First Amendment tax.”

A possible solution might be to establish two classes of lobbyist licenses — one for the “pros” and another, “free” one for those haunting the halls of the Capitol on their own time.

The U.S. Constitution gives all citizens — whether their name is Joe Blow or Joe Lobbyist — the right to petition lawmakers for the redress of grievances. There’s no reason that in Georgia people should have to pay a fee (even a small one) in order to exercise that basic First Amendment right.

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