ATLANTA — When House Speaker David Ralston traveled with his family and chief of staff to Europe, a lobbyist picked up the $15,000 tab for their air and train fare. Senate President Tommie Williams had a lobbyist pick up $5,000 in golfing fees when he teed off at a resort on the Georgia coast.
While the two apparently had no problem accepting the gifts, their constituents appear less than happy with the no-limit spending on state lawmakers. More than 81 percent of voters in the Republican and Democratic primary elections Tuesday supported restricting gifts that lawmakers can receive. Still, it remains to be seen if popular support registered in nonbinding ballot questions goads lawmakers to set restrictions when the General Assembly reconvenes.
Georgia is among a minority of states that permit lobbyists to give as much as they want to lawmakers. In theory, a lobbyist could park a brand new sports car in a lawmaker’s driveway and hand over the keys if the gift was properly disclosed.
Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, said he intends to file legislation next year that would set a cap after his attempt failed this year. He intends to ban any lobbyist from spending more than $100 daily on a lawmaker, although the details have not been finalized.
McKoon pressed Republican leaders to put the question on the ballot, and it could give him political leverage on his opponents. Just one day after the election, McKoon said supporters were tallying exactly how many people voted for a gift cap in every legislative district. He plans to send that information to his fellow lawmakers in a letter asking for their support.
“They’ll know exactly how many of their constituents .... voted to move this forward,” McKoon said.
The numbers align critics of a cap against their own constituents. Ralston, a Republican, represents Gilmer and Fannin counties. On Tuesday, 87 percent of GOP voters in Gilmer supported a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, while 85 percent of Republicans backed it in Fannin.
Chris Steck, 56, from the Republican suburbs ringing Atlanta, is an example of the sort of GOP voter who could spell trouble for opponents of a cap. He voted in favor of lobbying restrictions on Tuesday.
“I think that people get influenced,” Steck said. “You see it in private business. If people are getting gifts, then you can’t help but be biased in your decision-making capability.”
Ralston did not respond to a request for comment. He earlier said the drive for a cap was spearheaded by liberals and media elites. He argued that limits will drive lobbyist spending underground. Ralston spokesman Marshall Guest said the speaker would prefer giving the state’s ethics commission more power to police lawmakers.
“The speaker continues to advocate for true ethics reform, but has serious reservations about supporting gimmicks cloaked as ethics reform and sold to Georgians as a way to help restore the public’s trust in government,” Guest said.
Only a handful of states like Georgia impose no limit on lobbyist gifts. Limits on lobbyist spending vary widely by state, but the majority impose some restrictions on gifts, whether an outright ban in New York or a $10 annual cap in Arizona, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Former state senator and lobbyist Wayne Garner said he considered a $100 cap reasonable. He did not believe it was a cure-all.
“I think there’s a tremendous distrust of people in government, whether that’s at the state or the national level,” he said. “And if you do this, I don’t think that solves that issue of trust.”
Political shifts may favor the passage of a lobbying cap in the Senate. This year, McKoon’s bill was assigned straight to the Senate Rules Committee, a sign that legislative leaders wanted to defeat it. Normally, the Rules Committee only decides which bills get a floor vote after other committees have vetted them in public. The bill never got out of the Rules Committee and failed when the session ended.
Rules Chairman Don Balfour, however, found himself the subject of an ethics complaint for claiming state pay on days that lobbyists reported feting Balfour at out-of-state functions, which is against the law. McKoon sits on a legislative committee that is investigating Balfour over those incidents.
Under criticism ahead of the election, Balfour signed onto a pledge to support a lobbying cap. So have other key Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, who is leaving his leadership post next year but will remain a lawmaker. Another new backer is Majority Leader Chip Rogers, whom social conservatives have recently criticized for appearing on a TV show years ago that predicted which teams would win upcoming games, a service that gamblers call handicapping. Rogers said he read off a script and did not personally make predictions.
The prospects of passing the bill in the House of Representatives seem bleaker because no member of Ralston’s leadership team would publicly pledge to support lobbying limits. Republican Rep. Tommy Smith, who sponsored the bill this year, lacked the clout to get his bill out of committee. He did not seek re-election.
“I think the General Assembly should respond to what the people have said,” Smith said. “And if the members have any doubt about how the people felt, then I think this election made it crystal clear.”