March 22, 2013 — Under the ethics bill and $100 gift cap that Georgia senators will debate today, lawmakers could continue accepting tens of thousands of dollars a year in travel expenses from corporate interests. Not only would the bill let them keep traveling to posh resorts on special interests’ tab, you often won’t even know about it. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council makes these jaunts possible. Big business and trade associations give the money to “scholarship funds” controlled by ALEC, which doles the cash out to legislators attending ALEC events.
Last week, both the Los Angeles Times and The Nation put the spotlight on a little-known but influential conservative nonprofit that creates “model” state legislation that often make its way into law. The American Legislative Exchange Council has helped craft some of the most controversial — and industry-friendly — legislation of recent years.
House Speaker David Ralston and other lawmakers learn today whether lobbyists’ spending on gifts for officials’ spouses and families must be disclosed publicly, when the State Campaign Finance Commission considers an advisory opinion on that point. An attorney close to the speaker requested the opinion Feb. 11, just a few days after a complaint was filed over a $17,280 trip to Europe for Ralston, his chief of staff and their families. A lobbyist promoting high-speed rail paid for the jaunt.
House Speaker David Ralston, staff and family enjoyed a $17,000 working holiday last Thanksgiving. So much for the idea of a $100 gift cap. Or for transparency. Lobbyist Chris Brady, representing Commonwealth Research Associates LLC, picked up the tab for hotels and airfare. A few weeks later, Brady took Ralston and staff to a $403 dinner. Other than that, official disclosures tell us nothing.
Political action committees in Georgia operate with little oversight. They don’t have to report spending that’s not campaign-related. Nothing in campaign law addresses how PACs spend their money, the State Ethics Commission observed in 2008. “We did some advisory opinions because we were hoping people would get outraged enough and push for legislation,” said Rick Thompson, the agency’s former executive secretary. It hasn’t worked so far. Georgia lawmakers are sifting through a slew of ethics bills, but none address PAC spending.