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Speaker’s bill embraces scorned ethics opinion
Jan. 31, 2013 — Two years ago, legislative leaders squawked mightily at the notion that Georgians might have to register as lobbyists when they visit the Capitol.
Today, some of those same leaders may embrace the very same position — and more — that they once deplored.
A House Rules subcommittee meets at 1:30 p.m. to consider Speaker David Ralston’s 2013 ethics package. One of the speaker’s proposals, House Bill 142, would make people pay $320 in lobbyist registration fees if they want to talk policy with legislators on behalf of any organization, whether it’s Georgia Power Co., the Tea Party or the Girl Scouts.
That requirement has quickly become the most controversial aspect of the ethics package that Ralston released Tuesday.
Debbie Dooley of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots believes it’s payback for activists’ haranguing legislators about the need for ethics reform. In an email to Atlanta Unfiltered, Dooley likened the speaker to “a petulant child on a school playground throwing a temper tantrum because his teacher has told him it is time to come inside and stop playing.”
Sen. Josh McKoon, who may introduce his own ethics bill this week, suggested the requirement would be an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.
Ralston said this week that the measure is not meant to stifle citizens’ voices.
“We’re not trying to catch citizens who come down here because they feel passionate about an issue, come on a limited basis,” he said.
Nevertheless, the bill would require registration for “(a)ny natural person who receives compensation or provides services pro bono publico for advocating a position or agenda for the purpose of influencing the decision making of a public officer.” The bill would exempt citizens who are talking only to their own elected representative or expressing personal views.
The bill would cover communications not just with legislators but with elected city and county officials across Georgia. Registered lobbyists must file a spending report at least once a month or risk escalating fines if they don’t.
In March 2011, lawmakers couldn’t move quickly enough to override an advisory opinion by the state ethics commission that offered a similar but narrower interpretation of what was then state law. Legislative leaders scolded commission members and said their decision illustrated why the agency didn’t deserve the additional authority that it was seeking.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce had requested the ruling to clarify whether employees of a business must register to lobby if advocating public policy was not part of their official duties.
A 4-1 majority of the commission held that they did if they’re being compensated. In fact, the commission said, the law said anyone who’s being paid — such as a nurse or other professional who’s given a day off to go to the Capitol — must register before advocating for or against a public action.
Lawmakers scrambled to undo the ruling’s effects and got a new bill passed and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal two weeks later. That 2011 law does not require lobbyist registration for people who spend less than $1,000 a year — or 10 percent of their working hours — on advocacy.
At the time, members of the ethics commission said they were simply applying the letter of the law and they had no flexibility to tweak it.
“I think this probably is not what the General Assembly intended, but it’s what’s on the paper,” member Kevin Abernethy said then.
If HB142 passes as drafted, there will be no question about the Legislature’s intent.
NOTE: The House Rules subcommittee is scheduled to consider Ralston’s ethics bills at 1:30 p.m. today in Room 506 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building near the Capitol. Members include Reps. Rich Golick, Larry O’Neal, Stacey Abrams, Calvin Smyre, Matt Ramsey, Donna Sheldon, Mark Hamilton and Karla Drenner.
You can listen to an audio recording of the ethics commission’s March 2011 meeting here. Discussion of the advisory opinion begins at 1:08:50 and continues for about 45 minutes.