New rules coming just to lobby your councilman or commissioner

A bill that would almost completely ban lobbyist gifts to any Georgia legislator, save for certain specific circumstances, would also limit any citizen’s ability to advocate for or against legislation on behalf of any group with most elected officials across the state, even down to the town council.

The bill does contain language protecting the rights of citizens to express their individual views, however.

The first draft of the bill, authored by House Speaker David Ralston, expands the definition of lobbyist to include persons who provide free services “for the purpose of influencing the decision-making of a public officer.”

Under current law, lobbyists are defined as any person who takes such actions and receives compensation “specifically for undertaking to promote or oppose the passage of any legislation by the General Assembly, or any committee thereof, or the approval or veto of legislation by the governor.”

Expansion of the definition would require persons providing free lobbying services to pay a $300 fee to register as a lobbyist, but Ralston has since said the fee will be dropped to $100.

The bill, however, allows individuals to express “personal views, on that individual’s own behalf, to any public officer other than a public officer who is elected statewide by the voters.”

The change to include pro bono lobbyists has already drawn heat from a number of citizens who attended a recent committee meeting on the proposed House Bill 142. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, sits on that committee and said the bill, like any other, is subject to amendment.

Ramsey said he thought the gift ban would change the manner in which lobbyists interact with legislators.

Whereas it is currently common practice for legislators to be “wined and dined” individually by lobbying groups in after-hours settings over meals, that would change under Ralston’s bill, Ramsey said.

“It certainly wouldn’t prevent that, but it would prevent the lobbyist from paying for the dinner or the lunch with the elected official,” Ramsey said. “I guess the public officials would have to pay for their own dinner or lunch.”

Another exception would allow lobbyists to provide admission to “any collegiate event” involving a team from a Georgia university, so long as the admission is “offered to all members of the General Assembly.

The legislation is in response to an overwhelming public vote last year to limit lobbyist gifts to $100, Ramsey said.

“I think the voters in the electorate were very clear in the referendum in July and I think it’s most important to be responsive to the voters,” Ramsey said. “This legislation advances that ball farther than voters even expressed in that proposal.”

The bill is intended to not only apply to the legislature but also to local office holders including city councils and county commissions.

The bill includes exceptions that allow lobbyists to pay for food, beverages and registration at group events for legislators, committees and caucuses of either the Senate or House of Representatives, so long as all members of such a group are invited.

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