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Activists say Ga. House ethics bill a good start

ATLANTA (AP) -- A push by Republican leaders in the Georgia House to restore lost powers to the state ethics commission are being praised as a good start by advocates who say they would still like see more comprehensive ethics reform from lawmakers.

House leaders introduced a bill Friday that seeks to restore the commission's ability to interpret and apply rules and laws governing lobbying and ethic investigations. Former Speaker Glenn Richardson stripped away those powers during his final days in office nearly two years ago.

Speaker David Ralston said the ethics commission shouldn't have to consult the Legislature whenever questions and problems arise.

"This allows them to establish their own rules and frees them from having to come over here every year to have matters addressed that they should be allowed to address on their own," said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs and chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said the leadership's proposal sends a "clear signal that we have great confidence" in the leadership of the ethics commission, now formally called the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

The speaker said he also wants lawmakers to consider increasing funding this year for the cash-strapped ethics agency.

"This is a good, strong step in the right direction," said William Perry, the executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia.

Common Cause is calling for tougher ethics laws this year along with other groups including tea party activists, Georgia Conservatives in Action and the League of Women Voters. One of their priorities that's not addressed in the House leaders' proposal is placing a cap on gifts the lobbyists can give to legislators.

Unlike most of its neighboring states, Georgia currently has no gift limits. Lobbyists spend about $1.6 million on lawmakers each year -- mostly for free meals, event tickets and trips.

Julianne Thompson, an organizer for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said she's pleased House leaders are taking some actions on ethics.

"But our people are firmly committed to promoting legislation that addresses lobbyists' gifts at the Capitol, and we are going to keep moving forward on that," Thompson said.

Previously, Ralston has said he sees no evidence that capping gifts from lobbyists works and that it's enough for the state to require lobbyists to report any freebies to lawmakers every two weeks of the 40-day legislative session. The speaker said Friday his views haven't changed.