Ethics reform bill passes House

ATLANTA — The Georgia House of Representatives took a step Monday to “change the culture of state government,” overwhelmingly approving a bill to ban lobbyist spending.

The bill, which now must be considered by the Senate and the governor, took pains to define a lobbyist, so as not to infringe on the rights of citizens to give their opinions on legislation.

But House Speaker David Ralston said the measure would end the practice of lobbyists paying for tickets to sporting events, golf rounds or trips.

“Today we take that spirit of reform to a whole new level,” Ralston said. “It’ll let us go back home and let us look our neighbors in the eye. ... We listened and passed a real ethics reform plan.”

A companion bill to require reporting of campaign contributions prior to the start of the General Assembly legislation in January passed unanimously.

The measures come after overwhelming support last year for ballot questions on caps on lobbyist spending.

The bill gives exceptions for local chambers of commerce and lunches and the like open to all legislators or for committee and delegation meetings. It also returns rule-making authority to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

“I think what we are doing in my honest opinion is the will of the people,” said Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus who has served in the body for nearly four decades. “We have an opportunity and an obligation to respond.”

In the past, Ralston said he believed the transparency of lobbyist spending kept House members in line, and he said he did not believe ethics are a problem in the body. But perception from the public is a problem that needed to be addressed.

“There are good men and women in here,” he said. “Whether its a trip or a meal or a ticket ... (members) resented the automatic connection there was a quid pro quo for that,”

“I couldn’t be prouder of this House than I am today,” he added.

Earlier this year, senators adopted a rule capping spending at $100 per occurrence. And leaders have said they would move the House measure forward.