Group wants ethics on table for Georgia voters

Group wants ethics on table for Georgia voters

March 19th, 2012 by Joy Lukachick Smith in News

Georgia State Representative Tom Weldon

Georgia State Representative Tom Weldon

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

A Georgia watchdog group that pushed for tougher ethics reform in this year's legislative session is hoping voters will pay attention to lobbyist spending when they consider whom to elect.

"We're trying to take the next step," said Georgia Common Cause Director William Perry, "so voters can use it as an issue for whom they are going to vote for."

All seats in the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate are up for election this November.

Ethics reform that would have capped lobbyist spending on gifts to legislators at $100 - either per event or per 24-hour period - was backed by several watchdog and tea party groups, but the bills didn't make it out of the Rules Committees in either chamber.

Georgia now has no limit on how much lobbyists can spend on legislators. According to Common Cause, Georgia is one of only three states that doesn't have any type of lobbyist spending caps.

"We're almost a Wild West when it comes to ethics," Perry said.

Common Cause plans to become more vocal in this election campaign by making voters aware of how their legislators rank when it comes to accepting gifts from lobbyists. The group plans to publish the amount spent over what state law requires lobbyists to report, he said.

But local Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, said it's inaccurate to assume that lawmakers are supporting bills based on lobbyists' gifts.

Weldon said he doesn't know whether he would have voted for the House bill if it had come to the floor.

"If it gave transparency, I'd have to consider it," he said. "But I don't want to stop anyone's ability to have good representation in the Capitol."

Lobbyists educate lawmakers on positions, he said.

In 2010, an ethics bill passed that increased fines for lobbyists and legislators who break the law on reporting spending. It also required many local elected officials to file campaign disclosure reports - reports that detail who gives them how much in campaign funds - with the state Ethics Commission, according to The Associated Press.

But groups that supported ethics reform this year say that isn't enough.

Georgia Common Cause asked local attorney and former state Rep. McCracken Poston, of Ringgold, to speak last week on how he passed significant legislation 20 years ago that required lobbyists for the first time to report what they spent on legislators.

Poston said he sponsored that bill in 1992 when he realized how out-of-hand lobbyist spending had become. But he agreed the law should go further to cap lobbyist spending.

"It's very tough to change the status quo when the present representatives and senators are enjoying it so much," Poston said.