A move earlier this week by the Senate Ethics Committee really puts an exclamation point on the statement we have made before: Georgia’s lobbyist gift cap is fraught with loopholes! And the House Ethics Committee has already pledged to match what the Senate decides, so legislators can now better prepare to dance to the tune of unlimited lobbyist spending once again.
It will be much easier to get around the $75 gift cap than we even originally feared. Lobbyists can buy lavish dinners exceeding the gift cap for one single legislator in many cases, just like the good old days way back in 2013. The reason, “caucuses” can now include as few as two legislators. So it only takes two to tango, but what’s worse, only two have to be invited to tango – if only one can show up, then it can still be a solo dance to unlimited lobbyist spending. With this, an already weak law turns into a further mockery.
For background, last year the General Assembly passed “historic” ethics reform, capping lobbyists gifts to legislators at $75. Even at the time the bill passed, many people, including Common Cause Georgia, were extremely skeptical of the potential loopholes in the new law. The loophole problem was further proven last week in a joint hearing of both chamber’s Ethics Committees in which legislators asked questions about what the new law means. Unfortunately, everyone was left with a lot more questions than answers - almost a full year after the law passed. Surely legislators realize it would be much more productive to have such a meeting prior to passing a law, but I digress. The most talked about issue at the joint meeting was which caucuses would get approved.
One of the more egregious loopholes in the law allows lobbyist gift spending to the exceed the gift cap for functions in which lobbyists invite the whole general assembly, an entire committee or a caucus. The law has the provision that caucuses would have to be approved each chamber’s Ethics Committee before accepting gifts over $75.
The devil is always in the details, and we have been cautiously waiting to see what caucuses would be approved. The Senate Ethics Committee included in their caucus approval any county delegation with at least two legislators, and remember, the House Ethics Committee will follow their lead. So the bar is now set so low for the number of “caucus” members needed, there is effectively just a small additional speed bump pass before unlimited lobbyist spending on a single legislator can occur for a large number of members of the General Assembly.
For example: Senator John Q is invited by a lobbyist to go grab a last minute dinner at Bones. But oh wait, there’s that darn gift cap, and surely drinks, appetizers and a fancy steak dinner will exceed $75. Fortunately for them, the “historic” reform that is now law only requires that other members of caucuses have to be invited, they don’t have to attend. So a quick call to the only other member of the “caucus”, Senator Jane Doe, who declines because she already has dinner plans, means the $75 cap is now lifted because the entire caucus was invited!
This is the kind of thing that will keep Georgia’s national ethics grade so poor. If the General Assembly wants to get serious about ethics reform, our elected officials need close these loopholes and subject every member, regardless of caucus, committee, or delegation, to the $75 gift cap. It should not take only two invites to tango, with just one showing up to dance to lift the gift cap.