GA Ethics Reform Bill Endangers Free Speech – By Joel Aaron

February 01, 2013

Transparency is important in the People’s House of Georgia (and at the local level where it is already in short supply) but ethics reform should not come at the expense of the First Amendment free speech rights of every Georgia citizen activist engaging in issues advocacy. A few simple changes to House Bill 142 will insure this is avoided.

HB 142 re-asserts the rule-making authority of Georgia’s Government Transparency and Finance Commission, the group charged with administering lobbyist registration and reporting requirements. The bill outlines lobbyist gift limitations and broadens the definition of a lobbyist in Georgia. The definition is too broad in its current form and GA activists must insist on common-sense changes.

In Committee hearings Thursday, Georgia citizen activist Kaye Godwin testified that under the bill any unpaid volunteer activist engaging any elected public officer at any level of State government in advocacy for or against any issue would be subject to a $320 dollar registration fee and bi-monthly lobbyist reporting requirements. The liabilities currently associated with these reporting requirements run as high as $10,000. Any activist who testifies “…before a public agency or governmental entity committee or hearing…” of their own volition rather than in response to an express request for testimony would be subject to the same rules.

The arrangement amounts to a free speech price tag that runs afoul of the Georgia Constitution. Georgia citizen activist Richard Gruetter testified that under Article 1, Section 1, Paragraph 5, every citizen is insured the right to speak on any subject and no law should be passed to curtail or restrain it. Paragraph 9 allows citizen rights to petition or protest directly to those in government positions on any issue affecting them.

“A distinction should be made between paid and unpaid lobbyists,” explained AFP State Director Virginia Galloway during her committee testimony. “One suggestion is to issue temporary badges to activists with non-profit groups like AFP who engage in citizen activist work on an occasional basis.” Unpaid citizen activists and non-profit members lobbying on a volunteer basis should, ideally, be exempt from registering as a lobbyist at all. At a minimum, they should not be forced to incur registration fees and reporting requirements.

Current Georgia law already provides far greater requirements for lobbyist reporting and state level government transparency than is in place in counties and local municipalities. Further State ethics reform must not make it more difficult for citizens organizing to affect positive change on behalf of government limits and economic freedom.

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