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New transparency rules: A little more, a little less
By JIM WALLS
March 26, 2015 — Georgia lawmakers made history, of a sort, two years ago when they imposed a $75 limit on the value of gifts that lobbyists may offer public officials.
But the devil’s in the details, and it’s never been clear exactly how the limit would be enforced. Now, the state ethics commission is considering an interpretation so broad that it would allow gifts of $1,000 or more in some circumstances.
Lawmakers knew the gift-cap language was ambiguous when they enacted it on the last day of their 2013 session. Could lobbyists pool their money to pay for gifts worth more than $75? Could they do it once a day or more often? Would a meal for a legislator and spouse count as one gift or two? During legislative debate, backers of the gift cap didn’t have those answers.
A rule proposed by the commission — one of many to be considered today at a 10 a.m. public hearing — would settle some of those questions. Lobbyists could split the costs of a costlier gift, as long as each individual stayed under the $75 cap.
That would mean Cancer Treatment Centers of America, which currently employs 14 lobbyists in Georgia, could pony up $1,050 for a single gift for a single legislator. And that’s just for lunch. Hardly seems in keeping with the spirit of a $75 gift cap.
Chairwoman Hillary Stringfellow says the commission has little choice until the Legislature clarifies its intent.
“There wasn’t clear instruction in the statute as to exactly what it meant,” she said in an interview. “I think the only clear way to settle is to have a little better legislative instruction.”
Several of the proposed rule changes would make political campaigns more transparent and accountable:
- No more secret sweetheart loans. Candidates would have to disclose if they have a fiduciary relationship with a bank or other institution lending money to their campaigns.
- Meals, tickets and other gifts to public officials’ family members would have to be disclosed. Lobbyists spend thousands on legislators’ spouses each year, often without reporting it.
- Retention schedules, which dictate how long state and local officials must keep campaign disclosures on file, would require keeping the records available much longer than they do now — up to five years after a governor or other statewide officeholder leaves office.
Other proposals, though, would take several steps backward:
- The commission would now deliberate behind closed doors before voting on ethics complaints. Most cases are resolved with negotiated consent orders
- The retention schedules apply to candidates’ disclosures but not explicitly to the supporting documents kept by their campaigns. So a complaint alleging misuse of campaign funds could be filed but the financial records needed to prove or disprove the claim could be gone.
- The commission could still raise limits on campaign donations, based on inflation, but couldn’t lower them. The Campaign Finance Act allows the commission to reduce the limits, but its own rules would not.
- Fewer political action committees would have to disclose their finances. Currently PACs must file only if they make more than $25,000 in political contributions in a year; a new rule would eliminate donations to political parties and other PACs from counting toward that threshold.
- Candidates who raise money to run campaigns that they don’t end up running would have no time limit for refunding the donations. Senate President David Shafer, for instance, still sits on $142,000 that he drummed up for a 2010 bid for lieutenant governor. A proposed rule says he would have to give it all back; it just doesn’t say when.