New ethics overhaul limits gifts to public officials

ATLANTA (MCT) — Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday signed an ethics overhaul into law that imposes Georgia’s first-ever limitations on gifts to public officials after months of legislative wrangling over how far the new rules should go.

The legislation places a $75 cap on dinners and many other gifts lobbyists typically lavish on public officials. While criticized by some ethics watchdogs and lobbyists as weak and confusing, the legislation was hailed by the governor and powerful lawmakers as a watershed moment.

It was seen as a given that Deal would sign the legislation, as well as a separate bill designed to require more transparency on campaign fund-raising and spending during some local races.

He had made the passage of new ethics rules a legislative priority, even threatening a special session if the two GOP-controlled chambers couldn’t pass a version by the end of the 40-day session.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, once an opponent of lobbying reform, sponsored the legislation and helped negotiate its final passage with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate leaders. At Monday’s ceremony, Ralston called the law an “important step forward.”

“These measures show that this General Assembly kept one of its most sacred obligations this year,” said Ralston. “I believe this is one of the most positive accomplishments of this legislative session.”

Deal faces the question of whether he’ll invest more political capital into pushing lawmakers to take stronger action next year as he faces a re-election campaign that will inevitably raise ethical questions about his past decisions. He and Ralston both suggested it was premature to consider new changes to the measure until it takes root next year.

House Bill 142, the gift limit bill, was passed in the waning hours of the 2013 session after months of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers over competing plans. On the eve of the legislative session’s final day, Deal warned House and Senate leaders he would call them back in to a special session if they couldn’t compromise on a plan.

Even with the threat hanging over them, it was no certainty both chambers would pass an overhaul given the gulf between the two plans: A House version that would have eliminated most gifts to individual lawmakers but included numerous exceptions and a Senate plan with a $100 cap on expenditures but fewer loopholes.

The new ethics rules they cobbled together caps gifts from registered lobbyists to government officials at $75, allowing lobbyists to continue buying lawmakers meals and drinks as long as the tab for one expenditure doesn’t exceed that amount. It also opens the door for multiple lobbyists to spend hundreds of dollars on a single lawmaker.

Other significant questions remain, including whether the bill allows at least some state employees and attorneys to avoid having to register as lobbyists and disclose what they spend on legislators. The answers will be debated by the state ethics commission, which will have its powers to interpret the rules restored. But they won’t be known until until after the law takes effect in January.