ATLANTA - Lobbyists cannot spend more than $75 at a time while seeking to influence Georgia officials under legislation signed into law Monday that still leaves some loopholes and unresolved questions.
The legislation signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, takes effect Jan. 1 and sets the first state limits on how much money lobbyists can spend. Right now, lobbyists can spend as much as they want so long as they publicly disclose their expenditures.
"Our success as leaders of this state depends heavily on the public's ability to trust us," Deal said during a bill signing ceremony at the Statehouse. "And we cannot expect them to honor our laws or to elect us to do further good for this state unless we have put in place those measures whereby with certainty they know that we have their best interests in mind."
Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate fought over how to write the rules during much of the General Assembly's 40-day session. That political impasse prevented a vote on the state budget. To break the logjam, Deal threatened to call a special session unless legislators resolved the dispute. Lawmakers then approved the state budget and a compromise ethics package on the final day of the legislative session.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, described the bills as "historic measures" for putting the state's first limits on lobbyist spending.
Still, there are big exceptions. Once the law takes effect, lobbyists can still spend more than $75 on food, beverages and registration to host group events where all members of the General Assembly or entire political or other caucuses are invited.
Once a year, lobbyists can invite members of legislative committees, which have significant sway over bills, out for meals. Lobbyists will be able to pay to send lawmakers and their staff on trips within the United States that are related to their official duties.
There are questions about how the rules will be enforced. The new law limits what lobbyists can spend, not what lawmakers can accept. As a result, some who supported tighter restrictions on lobbyist spending fear it will be legal for lobbyists to split large expenses. For example, two lobbyists could jointly buy a $150 football ticket for a lawmaker without breaking the rules.
Critics also worry a provision of the bill will allow attorneys to lobby without having to officially register as lobbyists and obey the new rules governing spending. The state's ethics commission, which enforces the law, will likely be asked to rule on those issues next year.
"We are pleased that this first step was taken, and we will be back," said Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, which pushed for tighter lobbying rules. "There are things that need to be done to adjust the legislation."
Ralston said lawmakers need to see how the new laws work before considering changes to them.