Lawmakers and lobbyists start the 2014 legislative session Monday with this understanding: the days of unlimited spending on expensive dinners, sporting events and cocktails are gone.
How gone, exactly, is the big question. Last year, legislators acceded to the will of the people that the General Assembly limit gifts from lobbyists. The result was a $75 cap on individual spending, plus an outright ban on free sports tickets and golf outings.
Senators and representatives hailed the reforms as both historic and straightforward, but they were only half right. Elements of the new law have so perplexed the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association that it is drafting a letter with dozens of questions for the state ethics commission about how the law will work.
“Every time we look at the law we come up with new questions, new interpretations,” said Jet Toney, chairman of the lobbyist group. “We’re talking about dozens of registered lobbyists who are experienced (and are) taking a lot of time to study the law and trying to determine what is allowed behavior.”
For example, how does the $75 limit apply if three lobbyists take one legislator out to dinner? Are they limited to spending $25 apiece, or can they each spend $75? Another example: the limit applies to “public officials,” but does it also apply to their spouses or staffers?
And there is this question, which describes a practice that the public probably doesn’t know about: lobbyists “regularly have public officials request that they pay for dinner for the public official plus a local delegation.” That delegation “may include county or city elected officials or local business leaders.” In an early draft of its letter, the lobbying group asks whether this practice is still allowed.
The public doesn’t know about this because lobbyists have never had to tell anyone about it. They must disclose spending on legislators, but they have no obligation to report how much they dropped on dinner and drinks for the legislator’s guests.