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Gift-limiting ethics reform faces steep odds
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ATLANTA — In a symbolic scene, state Sen. Josh McKoon stood alone Monday to announce an ethics bill that would cap lobbyist gifts at $100 and set a limit of $750 for travel, meals and accommodations for conferences and speaking engagements for lawmakers.

While eight Republican senators have signed onto Senate Bill 391, filed hours earlier, most are fairly new, and none of the signatures include the Senate's top leadership — raising concerns about the prospects for the bill's passage this session. A bill filed last week in the House with the support of Speaker David Ralston makes no mention of gift caps, focusing instead on changes to the ethics board's rule-making authority.

McKoon said setting a limit on gifts is at the center of the discussion on ethics reform, and should be the priority.

"It's clear that Georgians are out of line with the rest of the country," McKoon said. "We are having a crisis of confidence in our state. We have a cloud over everything we are doing."

The Columbus Republican campaigned on ethics reform in 2010 and called his legislation "a first step" towards restoring that confidence. McKoon said that Georgia is one of three that does not set some limit on lobbyist gifts, and that lobbyist spending on lawmakers at the Capitol has increased by $400,000 — from $1.4 million to $1.8 million — since 2008.

The gift cap could increase or decrease annually according to the Consumer Price Index or by 3 percent — whichever is greater— and the travel limit could have exceptions if approved by a review committee made up of legislative appointees. The bill would also ban anyone currently serving as a lobbyist or their family member from serving on the ethics board, and would prohibit employees of the governor and lieutenant governor from becoming lobbyists for one year.

Several groups, including the state tea party, are supporting the bill, which is being co-sponsored by several new senators. Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry said the increased public awareness and support for ethics reform could make the difference this session.

"We're encouraging the public to call (Ralston's) office," Perry said. "He's the one man stopping this from moving forward. It's just a matter of getting it to the floor. We'd like to see him set his fellow Republican lawmakers free."

Ralston spokesman Marshall Guest said the speaker is "focused on cutting red tape, balancing the state budget without raising taxes and fostering an economic environment that promotes job creation among other issues facing our state." Guest said Ralston would say more on the issue "if the measure makes it out of the Senate."

"(Ralston) believes that transparency through disclosure and providing the information to Georgians with only the click of a mouse is the best system to hold our elected officials accountable," Guest said in a statement. "(Ralston) also supports restoring the independence of the commission by returning rule making authority to it."

Ethics reform at the Capitol has been a challenge in recent years, as the issue came into the spotlight amid a scandal involving former House Speaker Glenn Richardson. McKoon said he has had "spirited discussions" with his Republican colleagues and has not yet had a response from Senate leadership on whether the bill will make it to the floor for a full vote.

A call to Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers for comment was not immediately returned Monday.

The proposal will be assigned to a Senate committee on Tuesday. In the meantime, McKoon said he is willing to meet with anyone, regardless of party, to gain support for the measure.

Senate Democrats responded to the announcement of the Republican proposal as "a smokescreen for real ethics reform," and said they were approached after a bill was written, but not during the process. Senate Democratic Caucus Leader Steve Henson said the proposal also does not reinstate the commission's rule-making authority.

Democrats also have introduced ethics-related legislation this session, including proposals that would ask voters to approve a dedicated appropriation to permanently fund the ethics commission and to create an independent ethics commission appointed by the state supreme court's chief justice and the chief judge of the state court of appeals.


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