Ethics reform bill staying put in 2006 Legislature

ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue and other supporters of last year's overhaul of Georgia's ethics-in-government law have been saying they wouldn't mind sitting pat this year and seeing how the new measure plays out.

With the 2006 General Assembly session more than half gone, it looks like they'll get their wish.

A bill introduced last week aimed at reining in the more expensive freebies lobbyists lavish upon legislators isn't moving. It's being sponsored in the House by minority Democrats and doesn't have the support of the Republicans in control of the chamber.

On the Senate side, GOP leaders are interested in coming up with a statewide process for handling complaints about local politicians. But with the deadline for passing bills out of at least one legislative chamber fast approaching, that effort is running out of time.

"I was hoping to get more support from the Legislature than we've gotten,'' said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause-Georgia, a good-government group that worked with Republicans on last year's bill and has been pushing for some follow-up this year.

The legislation enacted a year ago, one of the governor's top priorities for the 2005 session, originally including a $50 limit on lobbyists' gifts. But the cap was scrapped as the bill made its way through the legislative process.

Legislation introduced into the House by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, this month would take that cap a step further by prohibiting all gifts other than food or beverages. Lobbyists could only buy lawmakers meals up to $50 in value.

Oliver's bill followed the latest news reports detailing lobbyists' gifts to legislators of tickets to sporting events, plane tickets and spending on meals at exclusive restaurants.

She said its purpose is to stop those sorts of activities while still giving lobbyists the ability to chat up lawmakers over a cup of coffee, lunch or at one of the many receptions that take place in and around the Capitol.

"Moderate, reasonable entertainment will continue to be allowed but none of the private tickets and private travel,'' Oliver said.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said ending the more lavish forms of spending by lobbyists would help restore voters' trust in their elected leaders.

"We ought to be assuring the public that we are above board and are going about doing the business of the people and not of others,'' he said.

While Oliver's bill may give Democratic candidates an issue to campaign on later this year, it's not expected to make it to the House floor for a vote.

Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, has expressed similar sentiments as Perdue against reopening debate on ethics this year.

The Senate has been more aggressive in pushing for ethics reforms in recent years, no matter which party has been in the majority.

Before this year's session began and again in recent weeks, Senate Republican leaders have expressed interest in expanding upon the legislative committee created by last year's bill to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she's been working to develop a process local governments could use to handle ethics complaints.

She said cities have been making progress on their own. More than 100 have adopted ethics-in-government ordinances based upon a model crafted by the Georgia Municipal Association.

Unterman said counties aren't doing nearly as well.

"I'd like to get the counties as motivated and aggressive,'' she said. "A county has more bureaucracy than a city. It's harder to find the right person to go to to complain.''

But Unterman said she has too much research left to do to get legislation ready this year. She said a hearing is the most her committee likely will accomplish.

Bozarth said he would welcome even that as an opportunity for lawmakers to hear testimony from witnesses who have had trouble pursuing ethics complaints against local officials.

"There may be a mechanism there, but there's not the resources or staff to carry out an investigation,'' he said. "One thing I want to do is bring in some of these real-life situations.''