Candidates pledge to cap lobbyist gifts


Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Aaron Gould Sheinin

May 23, 2012

Nearly 20 lawmakers or candidates, including the top Republican in the Senate, have signed a pledge promising to support a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers.

The bipartisan group includes veteran legislators such as Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, who is now running for Senate; and state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. Also taking the pledge were challengers such as Regina Quick and David Doss, newly minted Republican candidates for the House and Senate, respectively.

But easily the biggest name of the bunch is that of Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, who was a late addition to the pledge list Wednesday.

Common Cause Georgia, the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and Georgia Conservatives in Action promised to make ethics reform a top issue in the July primaries as well as the November general election. The topic has gained momentum in the past week after Georgia Republicans, at their annual convention this past weekend, agreed to put the matter before voters in a nonbinding referendum during the July 31 primary.

Julianne Thompson, representing both the Tea Party Patriots and Conservatives in Action, said Wednesday that the coalition of groups will use the pledge as a kind of litmus test in a number of races. The coalition will announce those targeted contests once qualifying ends Friday.

It was unclear Wednesday how successful tea party groups had been in recruiting candidates. Leaders of the grass-roots movement have promised to field challengers to a number of incumbents they have identified as failing to uphold some conservative values. This week's qualifying term is seen as their opportunity to prove that the tea party has grown from a vocal but detached movement to a powerful and composed force.

Either way, Thompson and others have made clear that ethics reform will be among their signature concerns.

William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said a refusal to sign the pledge means you oppose the idea.

"We’re hearing from a lot of representatives and a lot of senators and a lot of candidates about why they can’t sign on," Perry said. "We often hear that nobody signs on to anything until they read the bill. We’ve got that beat. It’s one sentence, and it’s on every pledge form."

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said there are opportunities to strengthen the state's ethics laws, but he remains steadfast that a cap is not the way to do it.

"I’m always open at looking at different ways of improving our law," Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. "Really, the fundamental difference I have with a few of the other people on this issue is I trust the people to give them information, full transparency and open information and let them make a decision."

Ralston said that's preferable to "an arbitrary, unworkable line that, frankly, I think is a gimmick."

Other legislative leaders, however, are apparently willing to consider it.

"I'm open to it," Williams, the Senate president pro tem, said Wednesday before signing the pledge list later. He said he planned to meet with tea party leaders this week.

Perry said Williams’ move is a big deal.

“It really takes us to the next level," he said. "For the pro tem to sign on shows there are at least some in leadership willing to see this happen.”

There are already signs that the proposed cap will be an issue in the primaries.

"I said in January that I would impose [a cap] on myself whether the law ever required it or not," said Josh Belinfante, a Republican candidate for Senate District 6 in Cobb and Fulton counties.

Belinfante, a former member of the state ethics commission, is one of several Republicans seeking to challenge Democratic Sen. Doug Stoner of Smyrna. At least one other candidate in the GOP primary there has pledged to support the cap.

Also, it's worth noting that Senate Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville, has picked up an opponent -- for November. Balfour is expected to face a primary challenge, but whoever the GOP nominee is will face an opponent in the general election. Attorney Scott Drake, 50, of Lawrenceville qualified Wednesday as a Democrat.

Balfour has already been targeted by tea party ire as the veteran lawmaker faces an ethics complaint over reimbursements he's claimed for travel and mileage. Balfour did not qualify Wednesday; he said he was out of town and will file the paperwork before qualifying ends at noon Friday. Former state Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, has been mentioned as a possible challenger, and tea party activist Debbie Dooley has vowed to run against Balfour if Cox does not. Neither Cox nor Dooley qualified Wednesday.