The General Assembly meets only 40 days annually, meaning its session Thursday will be the last for the year. State lawmakers start voting early in the morning and keep going chaotically until the clock strikes midnight. Any bills that do not pass the House and Senate by then automatically fail for the year.
The biggest question is whether Georgia lawmakers vote to limit lobbyist spending, resolving an impasse between the House and Senate. Imposing limits is a long-term goal of an alliance of conservative and government watchdog groups that have steadily built up public pressure for their cause. Lobbyists can now spend as much as they want to influence lawmakers so long as they disclose the spending.
House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) earlier this year proposed prohibiting lobbyist spending on individual lawmakers, though his bill would allow spending on committees, delegations and caucuses. It would also require some volunteer lobbyists to register with the state and publicly report their spending. While Ralston calls the rules necessary to crack down on unreported lobbying, Senate Republicans and other critics accuse the House of retaliating against tea party and other groups that pushed for restrictions.
By comparison, Senate lawmakers have proposed imposing a $100 cap on lobbyist spending and closing some of the gaps in Ralston’s plan. The Senate would keep the current rules on lobbyist registration, which generally do not require volunteer lobbyists to register.
Lawmakers face embarrassment should their negotiations collapse. Over the summer, Georgia voters supported putting limits on lobbyist spending in nonbinding ballot questions. About 87 percent of voters in the Republican primary election — roughly 827,800 people — voted in support of a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts. Nearly 73 percent of voters in the Democratic primary — about 423,800 people — voted in support of stopping unlimited lobbyist spending on lawmakers, though that ballot question did not propose a specific limit.
“I think there’s always some room for compromise, but obviously compromise requires both parties to participate,” said Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus) who introduced legislation to limit lobbyist spending last year and has continued the effort this year. “And I don’t know if the House is willing in any way to move from their position, which I think is frankly unconstitutional.”
Ralston initially opposed limiting lobbyist spending, then reversed course after this summer’s vote. He has compromised on other aspects of his bill, but he has openly mocked the Senate cap and insisted that lobbyist registration requirements must be expanded.
“One thing that we have found out is that people who lobby don’t want to be called lobbyists in this process,” Ralston told reporters on March 21. “But they’re lobbying. The Senate apparently doesn’t see that as a problem. We took a lot different approach, and I haven’t changed my mind about that.”
The chambers also have competing proposals on gun laws.
Senior Republicans in the House want to allow students with weapon licenses to bring their guns onto parts of public college and university campuses. That legislation, supported by the gun owners group GeorgiaCarry.Org, would also allow people who have voluntarily received in-patient mental health treatment in the last five years to get a license to carry a firearm. Probate court judges now have discretion over whether to issue licenses to those applicants.
A Senate-approved gun plan, one backed by the National Rifle Association, would make less sweeping changes. It would require that Georgia recognize licenses to carry weapons issued by other states. A conference committee planned to discuss that legislation Wednesday afternoon, said Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, who sponsored the Senate plan.
“We’ll certainly come up with a workable solution — or at least I hope we will,” he said.