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Thursday May 26th, 2016 7:13AM

Ga. lobbying proposal raises free speech debate

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) -- The next time the archbishop of Atlanta comes to the Georgia Statehouse, he may need to register as a lobbyist.

A plan from House Speaker David Ralston that would force more people to register as lobbyists has created a debate over free speech rights. Ralston says Georgia needs a clear rule: Anyone who advocates for or against legislation or policy must pay a fee, register as a lobbyist and publicly report their spending. He would make exceptions for private citizens who speak their mind to their hometown officials.

It raises questions: What happens if citizens come to the Statehouse and speak with officials who are not from their hometowns? For example, a religious leader who supports tighter abortion restrictions or a citizen upset about budget cuts? When Roman Catholic Archbishop Gregory Wilton led a delegation of believers to the Statehouse on Tuesday to meet lawmakers, were those people expressing personal views or advocating for a church that endorses and opposes legislation?

"One of the things we want them to do is get comfortable with the idea that I can actually go the Capitol and talk to my legislators, and it's not all that difficult," said Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference and a registered lobbyist.

Mulcahy said he does not believe that Republican leaders intend to limit the political speech of religious or other leaders, though he plans to investigate whether the legislation could cause conflicts.

What Ralston calls a clear rule, others criticize as unconstitutional.

"I've never had to be confronted with such an abridgement of freedom of speech," said Kay Godwin, co-founder of Georgia Conservatives In Action, who regularly drives to the Statehouse to influence lawmakers on a number of issues. She was part of a coalition that pressed for limits on lobbyist spending. "I don't get paid. I do this on my own time."

Ralston's plan would define lobbyists as people who get money or provide volunteer services while lobbying elected officials on a position or agenda. Currently, lobbyists must register if they spend more than 10 percent of their working time on lobbying or spend $1,000 or more annually on lobbying efforts.

People representing their personal views or lobbying for free would not have to register so long as they interacted with public officials from their own districts.

"There are many people who are here in this building almost every day advocating for or against a proposition pending before this Legislature that need to be registered and need to be wearing a badge," Ralston said this week.

Georgia has a problem with undisclosed lobbying, said Jet Toney, chair of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association. He said leaders in emerging industries sometimes do not register as lobbyists as they press state officials for business or regulatory advantages. Toney said leaders of regional advocacy groups can dodge the registration and reporting requirements by claiming they spend less than $1,000 annually on lobbying.

Toney said that system is unfair to lobbyists who follow the rules. It also means the public does not fully know who spends money to influence state policy.

"Unless you're the tea party guy who's sitting in his underwear in his basement, if you've got a group of any size and you've been involved in any type of advocacy effort over a year's time, you've expended more than $1,000, if not more, even if it's just in gas mileage just to or from an event," Toney said.
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