Ethics panel: If you’re getting paid, you’re a lobbyist
By JIM WALLS
March 7, 2011 — Beginning today, lobbying takes on a whole new meaning in Georgia.
Nurses, teachers and other professionals – if they’re on the clock — now must register as lobbyists if their employer sends them to the Capitol to advocate for or against a particular bill.
So do corporate executives who visit the Gold Dome for a day – or even an hour – to take sides on a proposed law that could affect their business interests.
In essence, anyone who’s seeking to influence legislation now must file papers as a lobbyist if they’re being paid while doing so. They must pony up a $300 registration fee and file twice-monthly disclosures of their expenses, even if they don’t have any.
That’s how the State Campaign Finance Commission, with a good deal of reluctance, voted last week to interpret the state’s lobbyst law. The decision came in response to a request by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce seeking clarification.
Doug Chalmers, an attorney representing the chamber, suggested the law only requires registration for people who are specifically asked to lobby as part of an employment agreement.
A broader interpretation could have unintended consequences, Chalmers warned at the commission’s March 1 meeting. “You’re going to have a huge number of persons registering and filing reports with no expenditures,” he said.
Stacey Kalberman — the commission’s executive secretary, who drafted the advisory opinion — cautioned that the chamber’s preferred reading of the law would allow businesses to avoid registering lobbyists by carefully crafting the language of their employment contracts.
“I don’t think it should be up to the people that are regulated to decide [whether] they are regulated,” she said.
Commission members generally appeared sympathetic to the chamber’s position, at least in part, but said they didn’t believe lawmakers had given them wiggle room.
“The language they passed I don’t think allows us to make exceptions,” commission member Josh Belinfante said.
Added commissioner Kevin Abernethy: “I think this probably is not what the General Assembly intended, but it’s what’s on the paper.”
The commission’s advisory opinion notes that witnesses speaking before legislative committees might also be deemed to be lobbyists, if their testimony goes beyond an unbiased, educational presentation.
The advisory opinion was approved on a 4-1 vote, with Chairman Patrick Millsaps the lone dissenter.
Millsaps, noting that many people cannot afford the $300 lobbyist registration fee, worried that the decision could be trampling on Georgians’ constitutional rights:
“I think we are coming dangerously close to putting up barriers to prevent people from petitioning their government, which is kinda one of those biggies that we got when we started the country.”