"More of a sun visor than a cap," is how Georgia House Speaker David Ralston described the Senate's Rule limiting gifts from lobbyists to $100. He is so critical because of the exceptions the rule allows. He pledged to write something stronger; to enact "real change."
Well, yesterday we witnessed round two from the House Subcommittee on Ethics, which voted on substitute language for Ralston';s ethics bill after public outcry about some of its weaknesses forced them to knock it off the fast-track.
They still have not produced what the Speaker said he would introduce months ago – "a complete ban". If we stick to head gear, and the Speaker thinks the Senate cap is a visor, then I have to declare his ban a toupee – it's a fake ban because of the exceptions it allows. It is no where near a "complete ban" of gifts from lobbyists to legislators.
Don't get me wrong, there are some things to applaud in the bill. For example, the ethics commission's rule-making ability would be restored, disclosure would be improved around campaign money raised just before the start of a legislative session, and lobbyist registration fees would be lowered from $300 to $25.
But overall, the bill -- HB 142 (the original is here - http://www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/20132014/128952.pdf - the updated language is yet to be posted) -- still continues the 1st Amendment tax on citizens who want to speak to members of the legislature beyond their directly elected members (they do allow you to do so 5 times a year, but on the 6th day, you must register!). Sure, they lowered their proposed tax, but it is still a tax on free speech. And, I don't think that will be the most chilling effect on citizen participation. How's this? If you are paid nothing, spend nothing on gifts to legislators, but want to go to the Capitol more than 5 days a year and are forced to register, you could receive multiple fines as high as $10,000 per violation. Who wouldn't that scare?
Also, there is no distinction made between a high-powered and well-compensated corporate lobbyist and an unpaid neighborhood volunteer or regular old-fashioned concerned citizen who wants to advocate for an issue more that 5 times a year.
Most importantly, the bill would still allow abuses like the Speaker's lobbyist-funded $17,000 trip to Europe three years ago. Here's the section that excuses such behavior:
"Reimbursement or payment of actual and reasonable expenses provided to a public officer for such public officer's individual transportation, travel, lodging, registration, food, and beverages for attending meetings that directly relate to the official duties of that public officer or the office of that public officer."
The term "official duties" is not defined, so this means all members are able to create their own definition of what's official, and what's not. The law as proposed would allow exceptions to the ban on gifts for lobbyists offering their wares to invited members of subcommittees "_ which means only a few members are needed to lift the ban and allow extravagant dinners, attendance in high-priced suites at sporting events and concerts, and all the things we don't want to see allowed by a cap or ban bill.