When Georgia lawmakers convene for the 2013-2014 session of the General Assembly, they’ll have several issues already on the agenda to tackle.
The state Legislature’s only required task is to pass a state budget, but bills pre-filed before the start of the session give an indication of what may lie ahead for lawmakers. Ethics reform is considered by some to be among the top issues, and one lawmaker has already filed several pieces of gun rights legislation.
Legislation on pari-mutuel betting on horse racing has also been introduced again.
For the first time in years, Butts County will have a resident in the General Assembly, after the election of local businessman Burt Jones to the state Senate. He, along with state Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello, and Rep. Andy Welch, R-Locust Grove, make up the entirety of the Butts County delegation. Holmes and Welch are returning for their second terms in the House. All three are Republicans.
Several ethics proposals could get an airing this year, including one proposed constitutional amendment that would designate a funding stream for the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. The agency, formerly known as the state Ethics Commission, is in charge of enforcing campaign finance reporting and lobbying regulations.
The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Joshua McKoon of Columbus, is also pushing a limit on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. There is currently no limit, but gifts, including things like dinners and tickets to sporting events, must be reported.
In an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting, McKoon, a Republican, said he believed this year the mood of lawmakers will favor ethics reform. “You’re hearing from just about every quarter,” he was quoted as saying. “You’re at least hearing different proposals on the table whereas during the 2012 legislative session, we couldn’t even get a committee hearing to discuss any of these proposals.”
Holmes, who is a former mayor of Monticello and worked for the federal government, said she would support reasonable ethics reform measures if they are the will of constituents. She added, however, that new lawmakers often benefit from the connections made at dinners and events moreso than already well-connected lawmakers, and she worries about deterring those social interactions.
She also pointed to existing lobbyist and lawmaker reporting requirements. “You already have to disclose everything anyway,” she said.
Jones said he would not oppose more stringent ethics regulations, though he worried that bans on gifts like tickets to university system events might pose problems for institutions looking to show off their campuses or express their needs to lawmakers, who approve their budgets.
“If folks want to take up putting a cap on [gifts] I don’t have a problem with it by any means,” Jones said. “I’ve gone this long buying my own lunches and dinners.”
Welch said he is most interested in ensuring the commission is adequately funded, so as to be able to enforce existing ethics laws. He said whether through a budget appropriation or through a constitutional amendment — he’s not settled on which way is most appropriate — an adequately funded oversight body will be better able to police politicians.
“That, to me, is the most pressing issue that faces state politics,” he said. “If we’ve got a well funded enforcement agency, such as the commission, then the ethics laws that are on the books will have more meaning.”
He said he would favor an outright gift ban, as opposed to a cap, which he said would be harder and perhaps more costly for the commission to enforce.
One of several bills already pre-filed in the House would provide for pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in Georgia. The 39-page bill would also establish a Georgia Racing Commission and regulations on the industry.
Holmes said she would be in favor of legislation to allow pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in Georgia, pointing to potential tax, tourism and economic benefits. “I think anything can be regulated and we’ll have to enforce the regulations very carefully,” she said of horse racing. “I think there are ways to do it so that it’s very well done and I would love to work on that.”
Jones said he doesn’t have enough information yet on the upsides and downsides of betting on horse racing, but said all means of expanding the state economy and the state’s revenue stream should be studied.
“We’ve got a shortfall of money in the state of Georgia ... and I think people are trying to come up with creative ways to produce more revenue for the state,” he said. “I think you have to put all options on the table and look at every angle.”
Welch said he would have to be persuaded as to the economic or tourism benefit of horse betting in Georgia before being able to support it. “I have a problem trying to raise revenue through things we’ve deemed illegal,” he said.
Holmes said she believes that pre-filed gun measures coming before the Legislature will also have to be carefully considered. She said while she grew up around guns, there are places like colleges and churches they shouldn’t be carried, and that any measure taken up shouldn’t come as a reaction to last month’s school shooting in Connecticut.
“It grieves us all, what happened, but we can’t let that make us jump into some unnecessary gun control that we don’t need and may not work,” she said.
Jones said he believes Georgia’s existing gun laws are sufficient, and doesn’t see a need to restrict or expand them. “I wouldn’t be interested, at this point, in broadening or limiting any sort of gun rights, right now,” he said.
Welch, in a phone interview Monday while on a quail hunting trip with his son, said “I’m certainly in support of preserving our Second Amendment rights and I’m doing that right now.”
He said, however, that he would have to carefully consider whether new legislation on guns might infringe on Fifth Amendment property rights, and an individual or group’s ability to regulate what they invite into their sphere.
A number of gun rights expansion measures were pre-filed by a Kennesaw representative in the days after the Connecticut shooting.
On the net:
General Assembly: www.legis.ga.gov