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January 30, 2013

Ga. House speaker proposes lobbyist spending ban

ATLANTA — Lobbyists would face restrictions on wining and dining individual elected officials in Georgia under a plan released Tuesday by the top-ranking Republican in the House, though his legislation leaves loopholes and falls short of a total ban.

The plan marks an about-face for House Speaker David Ralston. Ralston had long defended Georgia's existing system, which allows lobbyists to spend as much as they want on lawmakers so long as those expenditures are publicly reported.

Ralston's position changed after roughly 81 percent of Georgia voters, more than 1 million people, voted this summer in favor of limiting lobbyist spending in nonbinding questions on the Republican and Democratic primary election ballots.

"It is essential that the public trust be maintained and that citizens have confidence in those they elect to govern," Ralston said during a news conference.

His plan would generally prohibit lobbyists from spending money on individual state lawmakers and elected officials. But it would not entirely prohibit lobbyist spending.

Lobbyists seeking to influence lawmakers could still pay for food, beverages or registration at events when legislative committees or subcommittees are invited. Those committees have major sway in the Statehouse and decide whether legislation worth millions of dollars to industries and other interests gets rewritten, quashed, or sent to the House or Senate floor for a vote.

In another exception, lobbyists could pay for the travel, lodging, meals and beverages for state lawmakers who are attending meetings that relate to their official duties. That travel can be a lucrative perk. In one notable case, a lobbyist paid $17,000 to take Ralston, his family and two others on a trip to Germany in 2010. Closer to home, industry and professional groups commonly invite lawmakers to annual meetings at vacation destinations such as the Georgia and Florida coasts.

Supporters of limiting lobbyist spending were concerned about provisions of Ralston's bill.

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