Georgia Senate puts $100 cap on lobbyist spending - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Georgia Senate tackles ethics reform with cap on lobbyist spending

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Legislators sworn in Legislators sworn in
ATLANTA (CBS ATLANTA) -

Georgia legislators got down to business immediately after they were sworn in at the Capitol Monday.

Senators passed a resolution that will amend the Senate Rules and cap gifts from any registered lobbyist at $100 per item, event or meal.

"This resolution is the result of open dialogues not just within the Senate, but also with the people of Georgia," said Sen. Majority Leader Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone.

But Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said the new measure is a joke.

"I think this is what happens when you play around with gimmicks and are more interested in having publicity stunts than real reform," said Ralston.

The new rule puts a $100 limit on spending but it doesn't limit the number of times lobbyists can spend it. Before the measure passed, anyone could file an ethics complaint against a state senator, now only senators and their staffers can file complaints.

Ralston says he will push tougher ethics reform in the House.

"Our bill will have prohibition on spending on individual members of the general assembly by registered lobbyists, period," said Ralston.

Gun laws and how to efficiently spend taxpayer money are also among the hot topics as Georgia lawmakers return to the Gold Dome this legislative session.

Family and friends filled the state Capitol as legislators were sworn in Monday morning.

The unofficial start of the session was Sunday night, as lawmakers attended the annual Wild Hog Supper at the old train depot in downtown Atlanta. State senators and representatives mingled with local leaders and lobbyists, many still smiling because of the Atlanta Falcons' win earlier in the day over the Seattle Seahawks, securing a spot in the NFC Divisional Championship Game.

"It was a great day for Atlanta and Georgia, and I look forward to next weekend's game," Ralston.

Lawmakers must decide whether to use taxpayer money toward a new stadium for the Falcons. The plan is for Falcons Owner Arthur Blank to pick up the majority of the tab, but for the public to pay about a third of it through a hotel/motel tax.

"If they win the Super Bowl, they can come back and talk to us," said Ralston. "I don't know. That's an issue that we'll probably have some discussion about. The reality is there's a very low level of political support around the state for the facility."

The main issue for lawmakers continues to be how to balance the state budget in a down economy when departments already have bare-bones budgets.

"We're going to have to find ways to fill the little budget shortfall on Medicaid," said Ralston. "We'll get that done." 

The highest ranking Democrat in the House, State Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said the issue of the poor and uninsured is one of her biggest concerns.

"We have a number of working families who are doing their part, but can't access healthcare, and unfortunately, the fact that you're poor doesn't mean you don't get sick," said Abrams.

Another hot topic will be whether to tighten or loosen Georgia's gun laws in light of the school massacre last month in Connecticut that left 20 students and six adults dead, along with the shooter, Adam Lanza, who had a history of mental illness.

"What I'm hopeful about is that we don't overreact and somehow expand gun rights to the exclusion and more importantly to the harm of those we are here to serve," said Abrams. "There is no reason we should increase the efficiency of evil. And that means we have to be very reasonable about gun control and understand that you can believe in gun control and the Second Amendment as I do."

Ralston said gun control lobbyists will have a hard time convincing this Republican-controlled legislature to restrict guns for law-abiding citizens.

"It's always tragic when people who favor gun control use tragedies like Newtown to promote more restrictive gun laws. I don't think that's the answer. What's getting lost in this country is where we are in treating the mentally ill in our communities."

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