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March 20, 2013

State senators debate limits on lobbyist spending

ATLANTA — Tea party and other political activists criticized a plan Tuesday that could force more of them to register as lobbyists as the Senate begins debating legislation to limit lobbyist spending.

House Speaker David Ralston’s plan would generally prohibit lobbyists from spending money on individual state officials, including lawmakers. However, it leaves a host of exceptions. Lobbyists could still wine and dine legislative committees and other groups of lawmakers, or even pay for their travel to events related to their duties.

In a contentious issue, Ralston’s plan would require more people to register as lobbyists and report their spending, even some volunteering for nonprofit or small groups. That proposal has created a political wedge between the House and Senate.

Ralston has said that people who are trying to influence lawmakers on behalf of others need to register as lobbyists. A coalition of tea party, government watchdog and other conservative groups denounce it as a “tax” on their free speech rights.

Ralston’s plan overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives and is now before the state Senate, which can accept, reject or change it. Lawmakers will have to make their decisions quickly. Any bills not approved by the end of the General Assembly’s annual session on March 28 automatically fail for the year.

“The Capitol is the house of the people, and the people should be able to visit every day without fee or restrictions,” Jack Smith, chairman of the North Georgia Tea Party Alliance, told members of the Senate Rules Committee.

In a partial concession, Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, told senators that Ralston would consider waiving the proposed $25 registration fee for all lobbyists. The House earlier amended the bill so people who spend no money on volunteer lobbying could file an annual declaration instead of the multiple spending reports required from lobbyists.

But Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has insisted that more people at the Statehouse should be registered as lobbyists. His plan would exempt volunteer lobbyists who spend no more than five days at the Statehouse from the proposed requirements.

“What we feel, the House’s position, is that a lobbyist is a lobbyist,” Golick said.

A succession of tea party and other conservatives mocked the registration fee as a “pay to say” tax. They warned that imposing new registration requirements would discourage members of the public from speaking their mind on public issues.

“We still see this as a First Amendment tax, even if they say it’s zero,” said Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party.

Golick ran into intense questioning from Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, who seemed skeptical of the registration requirements. Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, also criticized the registration requirements in Ralston’s plan.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” McKoon said. “I think this is specifically targeted at people who are down here advocating on specific issues.”

Ralston previously opposed limiting lobbyist spending, then reversed course after nonbinding questions on the Republican and Democratic primary election ballots showed voters overwhelmingly favored it. Rob Adkerson, a member of several conservative groups, accused Ralston of designing the proposal to fail. Ralston earlier mocked an internal Senate rule setting a $100 cap on lobbyist spending as a “gimmick.”

“He came back with a gimmick and a joke too, a bill he knew would meet all this resistance,” Adkerson said.

Ralston denied those claims, saying he was ready to work to get a bill signed into law.

“There still has not been a good argument made for why those who are lobbying should not have to register as lobbyists,” Ralston spokesman Marshall Guest said in a statement.

Several speakers urged the Senate to adopt a $100 cap on expenditures, not the prohibition proposed by the House, and urged the Senate to set tighter rules governing how much lobbyists can spend on lawmaker travel.

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Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.

 

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