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By Eric Stirgus April 15, 2012

No limit on gifts to Ga. legislature, senator says

Georgia state Sen. Joshua McKoon, by some accounts, committed political suicide this year.

The freshman Republican from Columbus proposed legislation to cap gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers at $100. Statehouse leaders apparently didn’t care for his approach, removing McKoon from a committee to study the idea. There’s been mumbling, as one former senator put it, that Republicans were recruiting a candidate to run against McKoon.

"I have not been making a lot of friends inside the Capitol," McKoon said, when asked by PolitiFact Georgia about his proposal.

Throughout the legislative session, McKoon attempted to buttress his argument with a fact to help fellow lawmakers see the light.

Georgia, he said, is one of three states that "effectively have no regulations whatsoever on lobbyists giving to legislators."

The other states, he says, are Indiana and South Dakota.

McKoon held a news conference last month and pointed to a map of the United States with those three states in red. So, is McKoon correct?

Government watchdog groups have argued ardently in recent years that Georgia needs to tighten its ethics laws and make it more difficult for lobbyists to influence state lawmakers with gifts of meals or trips. A recent joint report by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity ranked Georgia last in the nation in the strength of its laws on public corruption and government openness. Some state lawmakers called the report biased.

Georgia code section 21-5-11 spells out the policy on gifts. It says that only statewide elected officials can accept gifts of more than $100 for a speech, seminar or panel discussion that directly relates to the duties of that official, but prohibits it otherwise. It states no rules for members of the Georgia Legislature or other types of gifts.

A section on prohibited lobbying practices, Title 28, Chapter 7, mentions nothing about gift limits.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution took a close look at lobbyists during the recent legislative session. A recent AJC story found lobbyists spent $866,747 --- the equivalent of $9,525 per day --- on gifts for lawmakers from Jan. 1 through March 31.

Many of the gifts would have easily surpassed the $100 limit McKoon proposed. For example, the AJC found lobbyists took Rep. Mickey Channell, R-Greensboro, and his wife to dinner on Valentine’s Day, spending about $230. Another House member, Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur, said he was unaware that the four Atlanta Hawks basketball tickets that lobbyists gave him cost about $500.

House Speaker David Ralston has defended the current system, saying eliminating lobbying gifts would drive the practice "underground," where the public would know less about what is happening between lawmakers and special interests.

So how does Georgia compare with other states when it comes to laws on gifts from lobbyists?

The National Conference of State Legislatures has a chart that examines gift policy in each state. McKoon said he used the NCSL chart to make his claim. Many states employ what’s referred to as the "cup of coffee" policy, which prohibits any gifts whatsoever from lobbyists. About a dozen states set the limit at $100. Four states set the limit at $250. A handful limit gifts from lobbyists to between $250 and $1,000.

The NCSL chart says Indiana requires lobbyists to report gifts, but does not specify any limits of what they can give lawmakers. In 2010, state lawmakers changed some of the rules on gifts from lobbyists. They must now disclose any gifts in a day greater than $50. Before, the limit was $100, said Julia Vaughn, Common Cause Indiana policy director.

"We don’t limit. We require some disclosure," Vaughn said.

Vaughn said some state lawmakers argue a gift ban isn’t necessary because it’s better for the public to know what they’re getting from lobbyists.

In South Dakota, the code section on lobbyists mentions nothing about gift limits for lobbyists. The NCSL lists South Dakota as having "no restrictions."

We found no discrepancies in the NCSL’s research. The current laws in Georgia, Indiana and South Dakota afford lobbyists freedom to give state lawmakers as much as they want. We rate McKoon’s claim as True.

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Our Sources

YouTube video of Sen. Joshua McKoon, Feb. 6, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Political Insider blog, "When the Legislature ends, payback begins," March 28, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Most notable gifting to lawmaker from lobbyist," April 8, 2012

Georgia Code

Indiana state code section on lobbyists

National Conference of State Legislatures’ state-by-state list of lawmaker gift restrictions, February 2012

South Dakota state code section on lobbyists

Telephone interview with state Sen. Joshua McKoon, April 3, 2012

Telephone interview with National Council of State Legislatures program principal Natalie Wood, April 3, 2012

Telephone interview with Common Cause Indiana policy director Julia Vaughn, April 6, 2012

Yahoo! News, "Are Limits on Lobbying Gifts the Solution to ‘Fishy’ Georgia Politics?" March 20, 2012


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