Published Thursday, February 07, 2013

Ralston amends Georgia lobbying rules proposal

BY RAY HENRY

ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATLANTA (AP) – Activists and volunteers who lobby infrequently at the Georgia Statehouse would be exempt from a proposal to tighten lobbying rules under a changed plan Thursday from a leading Republican.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he revised his proposal to make clear that people who get paid or volunteer as lobbyists for no more than five days a year will not have to pay a registration fee or report their spending. His changed bill explicitly states that people expressing personal views to public officials are not lobbyists, eliminating earlier language that raised questions.

"It was never my intent to make people pay a fee for coming down here to see their own representative or their own senator, or if they come on a limited basis," Ralston said in an interview. "Absolutely not the intent."

The changes were unacceptable to Common Cause Georgia, one of the groups that earlier criticized Ralston's plan as a curb on political speech.

"They are still attempting to tax and intimidate citizens who are exercising their Constitutional right of free speech," said William Perry, the organization's executive director. "There is absolutely no reason why people who aren't compensated and don't benefit directly from legislation that passes should have to register."

Like Perry, some tea party and other conservative activists criticized Ralston's original plan because they said nonprofit organizations should not have to pay a fee as they seek to influence lawmakers. A Baptist leader was concerned that clergy who come infrequently to the Statehouse to talk with state lawmakers could have been forced to register as lobbyists.

In a change, the proposed rules would not apply to local government. Ralston's plan would lower the lobbyist registration fee from $300 to $25, a response to those who criticized him for imposing costs on nonprofits or volunteer efforts.

"I'm not asking people to commit an end-of-life act here," Ralston said. "I'm asking people to simply wear a badge if you're here on a regular basis advocating for or against legislation on multiple issues. That is the heart and essence of the definition of a lobbyist."

A House subcommittee planned to review Ralston's new plan during a meeting Thursday afternoon.

Ralston's bill would still prohibit lobbyists from spending money on individual public officials in state government, though there are significant exceptions. Lobbyists could still pay for meals and registration at events where entire agencies, political caucuses or legislative committees are invited. Lobbyists could still pay to send public officials and their staff to functions that relate to their official duties.

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