Trade groups are warning their members they could risk hefty fines if company employees stray into activity that counts now as lobbying.
Volunteers remain exempt.
Basically, anyone who’s paid while communicating with a legislator is now considered a lobbyist, regardless of job description. That includes testifying before a legislative committee, spending the day at the Capitol as part of a trade association or expressing an opinion to a lawmaker in a casual setting.
That means submitting reports every two weeks with the state during the legislative session or face a $10,000 fine for each report not filed.
Monday, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission issues an advisory opinion interpreting changes to the Ethics in Government Act enacted last year. The opinion essentially becomes law because it declares how the commission will view complaints about people not registering as lobbyists.
The opinion is in response to an inquiry sent to the five-member panel by lawyers for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber spokeswoman Joselyn Baker sent an email to the organization’s members last week warning them to steer clear of violations until legislators change the law.
“The Georgia Chamber believes that this result does not reflect the intent of the General Assembly on the lobbying registration rules, and that the intent of the law is to require registration of professional lobbyists, not rank-and-file employees who simply express a position on a bill,” Baker wrote. “We will be working with legislators to restore that intent.”
The opinion was drafted by Stacey Kalberman, the commission’s executive secretary. She wrote in the draft posted online for comments that lawmakers could have limited the provisions of the law to professional lobbyists.
“Yet, the legislature did not. Instead, the General Assembly drafted a broad provision which can only be interpreted to mean that any individual compensated by another, whether as a consultant or an employee, is acting as a lobbyist if such person attempts to influence legislation by the General Assembly,” she wrote.
The chamber was seeking guidance on who would be excused from registration as a lobbyist. Its attorney wrote the commission Jan. 4 raising several questions and ending by suggesting no one would expect the law to be applied broadly.
“The registration provisions were not designed to indirectly capture individuals who are simply employed by business entities and who express opinions on legislation, but who are not expressly compensated to engage in lobbying activities,” wrote chamber attorney Douglas Chalmers Jr.
Apparently the commission didn’t agree with Chalmers.
“Put this in the category of Be Careful What You Ask for,” quips Stefan Passantino, an attorney with the Atlanta firm McKenna Long & Aldridge who often practices before the commission.
Registration is required before communicating with legislators, he adds. Registration costs $300 annually for each company, plus $10 per person and $20 for each one’s name tag.
Newspaper publishers fear it could even include them for running editorials about legislation.