Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, center, is surrounded by state lawmakers Monday while signing into law new limits on how much money lobbyists can spend while trying to influence Georgia public officials. AP
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Gov. Nathan Deal brought Georgia in line with nearly every other state in the nation Monday by signing into law the state’s first restrictions on lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers. Deal’s action puts in place the first major piece of ethics reform Georgia has passed in decades.

Until now, lobbyists in the Peach State had been free to lavish legislators with gifts and junkets of any size. But starting next year, they’ll be forbidden from spending more than $75 per gift.

The previous lack of gift rules was one of many reasons why Georgia ranked dead last a year ago in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven ranking of state government accountability and transparency carried out by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. In addition to its overall grade of F, Georgia received failing grades in the specific categories of lobbying disclosure and legislative accountability.

“Our success as leaders of Georgia depends heavily on the public’s ability to trust us,” Deal said in a statement after signing the gift ban along with a second bill that deals with campaign finance reporting, primarily at the local level. “Together, these bills constitute a major step in improving ethics, trust and transparency in our state.”

While advocates of tighter ethics laws hailed the legislation as a step in the right direction, the gift cap bill contains several exceptions they believe substantially weaken the provision.

“It’s like you’re starving for a meal and somebody gave you a saltine cracker,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, an advocacy group.

The bill permits lobbyists to pool their gifts, allowing three colleagues to jointly buy a dinner worth $200, for example. Lobbyists can also continue to shower committees and other group events with gifts of any size, and they can open their wallets to spend freely on travel for lawmakers as long as it is within the country and related to legislators’ official duties. The measure also makes it easier for lawyers to advocate for specific issues without registering as lobbyists, Perry noted.

“It’s chock full of loopholes,” he said.

The bill was the culmination of three years of work by a coalition of liberal and conservative activists, including Common Cause Georgia and Tea Party groups, called the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform. State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican, had also pushed the slate of reforms. The campaign met with little success until last year, when local news coverage and the release of the State Integrity Investigation pushed ethics reform on to the public agenda.

Last summer, the alliance placed non-binding referenda on primary ballots asking voters whether they supported a limit on lobbyist gifts. The measure won approval from 87 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats, and a gift cap quickly became a major issue in this year’s brief legislative session, which ended in March.

In January, on the first day of the session, the Senate passed a rule covering only the upper chamber that imposed a $100 gift cap. The leadership in the House then developed its own legislation, which initially included an outright ban on lobbyists’ gifts. But the bill contained several exceptions to the ban, and to the outrage of many Tea Party leaders, broadened the definition of who is a lobbyist in a way that would have required volunteer, citizen activists to register. The final bill is a compromise measure hashed out between the two chambers. The language was rewritten to address the concerns of citizen advocates about the definition of a lobbyist, but it still includes many exemptions to the cap.

Andre Jackson, editorial editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, criticized the legislature for waiting until the last minute to work on a compromise. “There was no justifiable reason why slapdash, last-second, basement-room dickering should have been employed,” he wrote in a blog post after the legislature passed the final measure in March. “As a result, what we ended up with, frankly, stinks.”

Debby Dooley, state coordinator for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said she’d like to see a limit to the gifts each legislator can receive each year. Advocates would also like to restrict spending on travel.

The final law also restores rulemaking authority to the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, which oversees ethics laws in the state. That authority had been stripped in 2009, hindering the body’s ability to collect fines and carry out other tasks.

Many of the issues that contributed to Georgia’s F grade from the State Integrity Investigation remain unchanged. Among advocates’ highest priorities are finding a stable source of funding for the ethics commission and creating an independent, grand jury-style body to investigate ethics complaints.

Still, many felt the measures signed Monday represented a step in the right direction.

“If you compare where we were March of last year, when we couldn’t have a hearing on an ethics bill, to this year where we got a bill passed, I think that’s tremendous step forward,” McKoon said. He said he plans to introduce legislation next session that would eliminate some of the exemptions in the gift cap, and would also like to improve financial disclosure for political appointees. “We have to make sure we don’t rest on our heels and say we’ve dealt with this issue.”

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