Last week saw the conclusion of this year's legislative session. In three all-day-long floor sessions, we considered 22 bills and resolutions, and also worked through more than 40 reviews of amendments and compromise positions between House and Senate versions of bills. This year was different from most of the sessions I've seen, in that we had worked our way through most of the Senate bills by our last week, and those bills that we did see were primarily minor housekeeping and "fix it" type measures. Thus, while there was plenty to keep us busy, the attention-grabbing action came from conference committees working towards compromise versions of bills.
Conference committees are temporary working groups appointed to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of a bill, when neither chamber is willing to accept the other one's version. Three members are named from each chamber, and the team is tasked with hammering out something that they think both chambers can support. There are usually a dozen or more such committees appointed during the last week of session, and this year was no exception. But this year, one particular bill held the lion's share of attention, and that was HB 142, the ethics bill intended to address the concerns highlighted in last year's heavily supported referendum on lobbyist gift caps.
Prior to the conference committee, there were some significant differences between the House and Senate versions of HB 142. The most notable were on spending caps or limits, where the House bill sought a total ban on direct, one-on-one gifts from lobbyists to elected officials, with broader allowances for groups of officials being served a meal. The Senate approach was to set a $100 cap on one-on-one gifts, and to have more constrained allowances for groups taken out for meals. The other main area of difference was with the House version seeking to require registration of a fairly broad range of individuals as lobbyists, while the Senate version didn't alter the current definition of who is a lobbyist much at all. While I saw merit in both versions of gift limits, I preferred the Senate's approach on lobbyist registration.
The conference committee version of HB 142 set out the following provisions. First, it set a one-on-one gift limit of $75. It also set an intermediate restraint on providing groups of officials a meal. For the Legislature, a group means all the members of either chamber, of the traditional legislative caucuses, or of a committee. The bill also retains the House version's ban on lobbyists paying for tickets to sporting events and other entertainment or recreation. Lastly, in terms of limits, it bans payment for travel outside of the United States, but will allow payment for travel within the country that directly pertains to an official's duties.
Another provision carried forward from both versions is the return of rule-making power to the state ethics commission. This is a fairly key change, which will give the commission the ability to flesh out the provisions of the bill, and make sure that they are properly interpreted and enforced. Finally, the conference committee version of the bill deals with changes to the definition of who must register as a lobbyist. Again, this is a compromise position, and requires registration for anyone who is paid to lobby, or is reimbursed for more than $250 of personal expenses from lobbying. As a further compromise, the fee for lobbyist registration is eliminated.
While I would like to see more constraint of travel, and wonder if the standards for registration as a lobbyist might still be a bit too broad, this final version is nonetheless a significant step forward. Legislating is a process in which you rarely get exactly what you want, and are frequently required to decide simply whether a bill improves the situation enough to be worth supporting or not. I think the bill does make that cut, and more than meets the mandate of the voters, so I supported it and it passed the House unanimously.
On Thursday, Linda Park of Almon was at the Capitol keeping an eye on a bill regulating video poker, and I enjoyed the chance to visit briefly.
Now for my customary session wrapup. Since Jan. 14, I've read nearly 400 bills, resolutions, etc., and cast about 280 floor votes on legislation. I received nearly 3,900 contacts (phone calls, visits, mail and email), of which 24 percent were from within the district. I still maintain the policy that contacts from within the district get first priority. Email made up 79 percent of my in-district contacts, and 86 percent of all contacts. "Spam" email accounted for 9 percent of the out-of-district contacts, which is up from recent years, so the spam artists must be getting a leg up on the spam filter folks.
State Rep. Doug Holt can be reached at 404-656-0152, or by email at Doug@DougHolt.org.