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Rules panel rejects gift limits, moves ethics bill on
UPDATE: The ethics bill was recommitted just now (12:20 p.m. Wednesday) to the Rules Committee. Not sure what’s up with that. We’ll find out when the committee meets at 1:30 p.m.
The House Rules Committee today pushed ahead with Speaker David Ralston’s ethics bill after rejecting Democrats’ drive for a $50 cap on gifts from lobbyists.
The panel scheduled the bill, tweaked just before the meeting, for debate by the full House on Wednesday. Procedurally, the measure was passed in such a way that it cannot be amended on the House floor.
The bill will include amendments pitched by Ralston to address concerns raised since the House Ethics Committee approved the bill two weeks ago. Those amendments:
- Add sexual harassment to the actions that ethics complaints may be filed on,
- Drop a provision to ban text messages from lobbyists to legislators on the floor.
- Require lobbyists to report spending for transporting, feeding and entertaining legislators when they are attending a meeting or conference. Ralston’s office had said that was intent all along, but open-government advocates complained that an earlier version of the bill would have exempted that information from disclosure.
Since 2005, lobbyists have reported $175,000 in spending on lodging and other travel-related expenses for Georgia lawmakers. Most of that money was paid to host legislators at summer conferences, frequently held at the beach and other resort areas, of various Georgia trade groups.
Democrats today asked the Rules Committee to support two other amendments: a one-year ban on state administrators appointed by the governor from becoming lobbyists, and the $50 ceiling on gifts (other than food or drink) from lobbyists.
Both were defeated on a voice vote after Ralston asked Rules to approve the bill as submitted: “This is too serious an issue for it to become a political football.”
Ralston said he opposed any ban or limit on gifts that legislators may accept.
“I believe that the people can best make a judgment about expenditures and where the line ought to be drawn,” he said. “I don’t believe that government ought to do that.”
The Democrats’ proposed $50 limit, co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Dubose Porter, would have covered “lodging, travel, transportation, personal services, gratuities, subscriptions, memberships, trips, loans, extensions of credit, forgiveness of debts, or advances or deposits of money.”
Porter got pretty steamed after the vote when Rep. Wendell Willard, vice chairman of Rules, said the Democrats’ proposal would have excluded those items from the gift limits. Rules Chairman Bill Hembree had to order Porter to sit down when he tried to correct the record.
“They’re lying to the people,” Porter said afterward. “They did that on purpose.”
Willard said later he had simply misread the bill and made “an innocent mistake.”