The loophole allows lobbyists to spend as much as they want trying to influence government employees without having to make any of it public. Funds spent on elected or appointed officials are required to be reported periodically to the state.
The loophole became evident last week when the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission issued an advisory opinion pointing it out. That opinion came in response to a question raised by a lobbyist who had spent thousands of dollars taking staffers for House Speaker David Ralston to Europe. Ralston and his family also made the trip.
Since the loophole came to light, several ethics groups and legislators from both parties railed against it. Over the weekend, several Georgia newspaper editorials called for closing it.
Now that the deadline to introduce bills has passed, the only way to close the loophole is through an amendment to another bill dealing with the same section of the law.
The House Governmental Affairs Committee was considering just such a measure, Senate Bill 160, which would allow regulated utilities like Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light to form political-action committees and made donations to candidates as long as they didn't contribute to candidates for posts that would regulate them. If SB 160 passes, those companies could contribute to races for the General Assembly, governor and most offices since only the commissioners of insurance, agriculture and Public Service Commission would be off limits, depending on what the company produces.
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, made the motion for the amendment.
"I believe there is bipartisan interest to fix this problem," she said.
The sponsor of SB 160, Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, agreed with closing the loophole but said he wanted to avoid amendments to his bill.
Rep. Mark Hamilton, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, told Oliver there would be other bills she could amend to close the loophole. But she didn't want the chance to slip away before the General Assembly wraps up Thursday night.
"I would not like to have this opportunity to pass and at 11:30 on Thursday say, Oops,'" she said.
Then Hamilton delivered a message from the House leadership.
"I have talked with them several times about (SB) 160 as a vehicle (for amendments), and I was told, right before the beginning of this meeting, that this was not an amendment that was felt that was needed at this particular time," said Hamilton, R-Cumming.
Balfour's bill passed without amendment. It has the support of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the utilities. It has passed the Senate 42-13 and now heads to the House Rules Committee which will decide if it will go to the full House for a vote.