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Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 11:26am

Georgia Democrats Target Ethics

Democrats in the state Senate say lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers should be capped at $100 a year. They also support finding a permanent source for funds for an independent ethics commission that’s not appointed by the Governor.

Democrats say the gift cap the Senate adopted as a rule doesn’t go far enough to rein in the power of lobbyists.

They say it still allows them to spend $100 per gift on Senators.

Backers of the new rule say it will at least police Senators if lawmakers don’t pass a similar bill imposing the gift cap on all legislators.

Steve Henson is a Tucker Democrat and the Senate Minority leader. He says creating an earmark for an independent ethics commission is even more important.

“It, like Alabama has, would create a specific portion of the state revenue to go to the ethics commission to fund it and they wouldn’t have to worry about it getting cut each year," he said. "And second of all, having those ethics commission members not appointed by the Governor but appointed by an independent judiciary.”

The provisions are similar to those Republican Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus says he hopes to include in ethics reform bills he’ll sponsor this session.

Henson made the remarks as the Senate Democrats unveiled their legislative agenda. He said they’re concerned that Republicans are trying to rush through a bill that would shift control of the so-called hospital bed tax to the state Board of Community Health.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s legislative floor leaders filed the bill late Monday, the first day of the 2013 legislative session. The bill comes as a Medicaid provider fee is set to expire this year. Many rural hospitals say they’d have to close their doors without that money.

The bill would give cover to lawmakers who don’t want to be seen voting for a tax. Many conservatives have signed or agree with Grover Norquist's no new taxes pledge.

Henson says a vote on the bill could come as early as Thursday.

“What’s the rush?" he said. "Two weeks ago they were talking about renewing the bed tax like we had been doing in the past. Now they’re talking about a totally different thing, where they give DCH the power to set and construct the mechanism for this tax.”

Some Senate Democrats also have concerns about plans to build the Atlanta Falcons a new stadium.

Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah says the state will earmark a lot of money for a stadium many Georgians won’t use.

“We know its going to be a major economic engine for the greater Atlanta area," he said. "But it’s all of Georgia’s taxpayer money. What does this stadium do for the citizens of Albany, Ga.?”

Stadium construction would draw on $300 million from the hotel/motel tax that visitors to Georgia pay.

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