ATLANTA — House Speaker David Ralston said Saturday that he will propose banning lobbyists from giving gifts to state lawmakers, a decision that comes after residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of nonbinding referendums to set limits.
Lobbyists can now spend as much as they want to influence Georgia's state lawmakers as long as they disclose that spending in public reports. Ralston, the top Republican in the House, said he supports the current disclosure rules and has opposed legislation that would have limited — though not banned — lobbyist spending on lawmakers. He called lobbying caps a "gimmick" on Saturday and said they could be abused. He said he planned to introduce the measure banning gifts outright when the General Assembly reconvenes next year.
Ralston's decision was first reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
About 81 percent of Georgia voters, or more than 1 million people, voted in favor of limiting what lobbyists can spend on state lawmakers in separate ballot questions in the Republican and Democratic primary elections on July 31.
"I've said that if we ever decided to move away from that system, I thought the alternative would be a prohibition," said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. "I think that you know we have a ballot question that the people of Georgia expressed their opinion. I don't think they were given all the options they should have been given. And so I think that if we're going to give Georgia real and serious reform, this is the only way to do it."
The Republican leader said he planned to create a study group when the General Assembly reconvenes in January to examine how other states ban lobbyist gifts.
Ralston said the outcome of the recent referendum was only part of the motivation behind his decision. The question on the Democratic ballot asked voters whether they wanted to end rules that allow for unlimited lobbyist spending. The Republican ballot asked whether voters would support a $100 cap on gifts to lawmakers, though there was no explanation of how it would work.
"I think it's sort of a feel-good gimmick that's being espoused by people who are looking for a platform to be relevant," said Ralston, refusing to name whom he was speaking about.
Ralston's stance may put him in conflict with Senate Republicans. Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, said he plans to re-introduce legislation that would ban lobbyists from spending more than $100 on a lawmaker in a single day. This year, Republican leaders buried a similar proposal from McKoon in the Senate Rules Committee, and it failed without ever receiving a vote. After learning of Ralston's remarks, McKoon said he would consult with his colleagues and consider lowering his proposed cap.
McKoon said he wanted to know if an outright ban could have unintended consequences. For example, he questioned whether lobbyists who are banned from directly giving gifts to lawmakers could instead host events for political parties where lawmakers are wined and dined.
Still, he called Ralston's stance "tremendous progress."
"I think if we're all agreeing we need to bring this practice under control, that's light years ahead of where we were" at the end of this year's legislative session, McKoon said.
Debbie Dooley, an organizer for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said she welcomed Ralston's announcement but wanted to make sure his intent was not to spark a legislative conflict that defeats tighter lobbying rules. Tea party supporters were part of alliance that pushed this year for a $100 cap on lobbyist spending.
"We think voters will actually see through any political games or ploys in an attempt to kill caps on lobbyist gifts," she said.