Bill could increase political donations during legislative sessions

“This is what makes people not trust the system and do not trust us” Senator Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said shortly before Senate Bill 221 passed his room last month, mostly on a party line vote.

SB 221 was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Rules of the Senate Speaker Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the bill’s sponsor, said he would let a governor, lieutenant governor, party candidate for those positions, and Republican and Democratic House and Senate leaders create such committees. They could each raise unlimited amounts of money to try and affect the contests.

Statewide candidates are allowed to raise about $ 18,000 per election cycle if they win a runoff – $ 7,100 in legislative races – from individual donors.

Limits on the amount donors could give to committees would not apply. Thus, contributors – usually lobbyists, industry associations, or companies interested in government legislation or funding – could give as much as they want.

Because the bill would require committees to disclose donors, Mullis said he was fighting so-called black money – funds that hide the identity of donors – something that has become more common in the past. over the past decade.

“This bill will highlight a cancer in our democracy,” Mullis said.

Him and House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, which pushes the bill through the House, emphasized the “transparency” of the bill. However, political nonprofits can still take money, not disclose donors, and then donate to steering committees such as those at SB 221.

And neither Mullis nor Kelley raised the issue of money donated during the legislative session.

Hitting lobbyists during the session

Elders on Capitol Hill remember when lobbyists seeking to pass legislation could make their way to the floors of the legislative chamber or to the anterooms and lawmakers at the buttonhole. The atmosphere was freer than today, although lobbyists still came and dined off-campus lawmakers during sessions.

Back then, lawmakers held regular fundraisers during session.

Longtime lobbyist and Republican activist Jay Morgan remembers them because he often received invitations and had to be there to represent the interests of his clients.

“These are some of the most disturbing events I have had as a young lobbyist,” Morgan said.

In the early 1990s, lawmakers banned lobbyists and others from giving campaign contributions to lawmakers during session because, aside from the possibility of corruption, it just didn’t look right.

Representative Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the Dean of the General Assembly and a member of the House since 1975, said lobbyists could put a lot of pressure on you then. Contributions during the session, he said, “cut both ways.”

“It helps the member, but it puts us on the verge of being compromised,” Smyre said.

Senator Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, was also present when contributions during the session were legal. “Allowing contributions during the session totally erodes any effort to separate it from proposed bills and budgeted funding,” she said.

But what is not said is that the caucus trusts and other groups involved in the political process are already accepting donations during the session, and they are accepting “black money”.

Both political parties accept contributions during sessions, and they often receive a lot of money from people who have a lot at stake in what’s going on at the Statehouse.

A review of campaign contribution reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that GOP House and Senate caucus funds – which are controlled by House and Senate leaders – reported receiving more than $ 300,000 over the past five years during legislative sessions.

This included money from the film industry while film tax credit legislation was under consideration, from producers of medical marijuana as rules were being written to regulate the new. state market, Airbnb as lawmakers were considering a bill to collect tax on stays, the cable industry as the General Assembly was considering taxing competitors in the streaming industry, the lobby of litigators, who wage seemingly annual battles against jury award limits, and San Francisco-based e-cigarette maker Juul.

These caucus funds have been around for years and have played an important role in maintaining the Republican majority. Democrats had similar funds when they were in power.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who took office with the help of a black money fund running ads against his second-round opponent, has an independent committee called Advance Georgia, which has raised 1.6 million dollars. dollars since mid-2019 to help Republican Senate candidates.

This included $ 150,000 from two Washington-based Republican groups, $ 80,000 from the Georgia trial attorneys lobby, $ 70,000 from two nursing home political action committees, $ 50,000 from Georgia Power, $ 50,000 $ from sports betting and horse racing lobbies, $ 40,000 from the road builder lobby. , $ 20,000 from the auto dealership lobby, and $ 35,000 from the company that has a contract to manage the state’s PeachCare for Kids health insurance program.

Relying on some of the same donors, the House Republican Trust has raised more than $ 5 million since the 2018 election, with Speaker of the House David Ralston promising a big push to halt the gains made by Democrats that year.

That total included $ 145,000 from trial attorneys, $ 121,000 from Georgia Power, $ 100,000 from high-interest small loan industry lobbyists, $ 90,000 from Pruitt family nursing homes, $ 55,000 from AT&T, $ 25,000 from the highway contractors lobby and an additional $ 450,000 from the Republican State Leadership PAC, a Washington-based group that worked to oust the minority leader from the State House, Bob Trammell.

Steering committees may be of more use to Democratic caucuses, which have not had the same type of PACs and independent committees as Republicans in recent years. Last year the party relied heavily on Fair Fight PAC, the political arm of the Stacey Abrams voting rights group started in 2018. Fair Fight’s PAC – which raised $ 120 million in just over two years and supported Democratic efforts in nearly two-dozen states – its donors disclose.

Orrock, who has served in the General Assembly for 34 years, said that at the end of the day, those most likely to fall victim to money might not like SB 221 – the lobbyists and their clients who are supposed to fund the management committees.

“This is one more way to extract money from lobbyists,” she said. “It’s a blind effort to get more money in politics. “