Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA — Lobbyists could not spend more than $75 at a time on government officials under a deal reached Thursday by Georgia’s legislative leaders on the final day of their annual session.
If approved, the legislation would impose the first limits on what lobbyists can spend in Georgia. Lobbyists can now spend as much as they want to influence state legislators as long as they publicly report their expenditures.
The plan would tighten rules, forcing people to register as lobbyists if they are paid to lobby or get more than $250 in reimbursements for their lobbying work.
The Georgia Senate voted unanimously to approve the bill shortly after 10 p.m., just ahead of a firm deadline amid the chaos of the General Assembly’s final working day. The chamber erupted into cheers and applause after the historic vote.
The House was expected to take up the bill late Thursday. Any bills not approved by midnight Thursday automatically fail for the year.
“We’ve moved the ball down the field,” House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) told reporters. “For the first time, we do have a limitation on spending — and I think that’s important.”
There are exceptions to the rules. Lobbyists could spend as much as they want on food, beverages and registration at group events where entire legislative chambers, committees and caucuses are invited.
It would restrict those committee events to one per calendar year. Lobbyists could also pay to send public officials and their staff on trips within the United States.
Tightening lobbying rules was one of several big decisions expected Thursday. Lawmakers also settled on a $41 billion budget for the fiscal year starting in July, one of the General Assembly’s last remaining tasks. Separately, there were ongoing debates over gambling, tightening abortion restrictions and whether to allow students to carry firearms on college campuses.
Republican leaders in both chambers had long been divided on how to change lobbying rules. The debate intensified this summer after Georgia voters supported putting limits on lobbyist spending in nonbinding ballot questions.
About 87 percent of voters in the Republican primary election — roughly 827,800 people — voted to support a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts. Nearly 73 percent of voters in the Democratic primary — about 423,800 people — voted in support of stopping unlimited lobbyist spending on lawmakers. That ballot question did not propose a specific limit.
Ralston had opposed restrictions on spending, saying it would encourage lobbyists to make expenditures without publicly disclosing them.
But Ralston reversed course in August and backed a ban on lobbyist spending on individual lawmakers. His legislative plan left big exceptions, allowing unchecked spending on legislative committee, delegations and caucuses.
Although the vote in the Senate was unanimous, Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus) said the ethics bill “reminds me of the old Clint Eastwood movie, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’”
He said he had concerns the bill did not set an aggregate limit on gifts but said he would vote for it because it was step in the right direction. He encouraged lawmakers to return next year and to consider further restrictions on lobbyist gifts.
Meanwhile, the Senate adopted in January an internal rule banning senators from accepting lobbyist gifts worth more than $100. That rule is weaker than the agreement discussed by lawmakers Thursday.
Talks to overhaul state gun laws broke down late Thursday over disagreements about allowing people to carry guns on public college and university campuses. House lawmakers earlier passed a bill allowing people with a weapons license to take their guns onto campus, though not student housing or sporting events. College officials strongly opposed the measure. It failed in the Senate, which adopted less-sweeping firearms legislation this year.
Lawmakers changed the regulation of video poker and other similar coin-operated machines in the state, opening the door for some proceeds to be directed to the HOPE scholarship program. The legislation moves oversight of the machines to the Georgia Lottery Corp. and away from the state Department of Revenue. The bill had garnered opposition from anti-gambling groups, but supporters said the goal was to crack down on illegal gambling by making it easier to identify rogue machines.
The bill calls for 5 percent of net receipts to be retained and directed to the HOPE scholarship program, reaching a maximum of 10 percent over time.
“It does not make anything legal that was illegal before, and it does provide for the HOPE scholarship,” said Sen. Butch Miller (R-Gainesville.)
A final push was under way late Thursday on legislation to prevent people from withdrawing water that was added to parched waterways to boost flows or protect wildlife in the lower Flint River basin. That process is called augmentation. Under the plan, the state could prevent people downstream of an augmentation project from taking the extra water for their own use.
Judson Turner, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said he believes he has that authority already, but he could be legally challenged if he moved to restrict water use unless the General Assembly changes the law.
“In a drought when you need to make this work, you don’t have time to litigate whether the EPD has that authority,” Turner said.
Critics say it would undercut water rights in Georgia. People with a permit to take water can now use as much as they want as long as their consumption does not harm people downstream.
While EPD said the bill is meant to protect wildlife, government officials in southwest Georgia have proposed using augmentation technology to help resolve a water dispute between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Those officials have said extra water could be sent into river systems in Georgia that flow south and provide water to all three states.
If the augmentation system worked, metro Atlanta might take more water from those rivers without harming Alabama and Florida’s water supply.