published Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Ethics laws set to take effect Jan. 1 in Georgia

In this May 6, 2013, file photo, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, center, holds up a legislative package surrounded by state lawmakers in Atlanta after signing into law new limits on how much money lobbyists can spend while trying to influence Georgia public officials.
In this May 6, 2013, file photo, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, center, holds up a legislative package surrounded by state lawmakers in Atlanta after signing into law new limits on how much money lobbyists can spend while trying to influence Georgia public officials.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — After dominating much of the legislative session, a set of major ethics reforms is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

The ethics laws are among a small number of major bills that become law with the new year. Others include rules requiring all new day care employees to undergo more exhaustive background checks, as well as a requirement that schools provide information about concussion risks to parents.

While the ethics laws set the first state limits on how much a lobbyist can spend, there remain considerable loopholes and questions about how the laws will be enforced. The state ethics commission, which has been dealing with various investigations and federal subpoenas, is tasked with interpreting the new laws and creating rules for compliance. That process could take weeks or months.

Under the new laws, lobbyists will not be able to spend more than $75 at a time. Previously, lobbyists could spend as much as they wanted as long as it was noted on disclosure reports filed with the state.

Potential loopholes exist. For instance, lobbyists can still spend more to host group events where all members of the General Assembly or all members of a smaller group, such as a caucus, are invited. In addition, the $75 cap is on lobbyists, not lawmakers, so it's conceivable that more than one lobbyist might join forces and split the cost so each doesn't exceed the limit.

Two other major pieces of legislation are also set to take effect. The first is a significant change to rules governing the state's roughly 6,300 licensed child care facilities.

The law requires fingerprint-based background checks for all new hires starting Jan. 1, and any facility not in compliance could have its license revoked under the law. Previously, a basic name check was the only requirement for most child care center employees, and that was limited to searching criminal records in Georgia. Only the director of the facility had been required to undergo and pass the more comprehensive test.

Eventually, all employees will be subject to the checks. A separate component of the law requires all current employees to undergo the checks by Jan. 1, 2017, and every five years during their subsequent employment. Those with felony convictions would be ineligible to work, although there is an appeals process for those who committed crimes long ago that did not involve children.

There is a cost increase associated with the change. The current employee background check costs about $15, and the fingerprint check is roughly $52. The law does not say who should bear the costs, with that likely varying by child care facility.

The second major bill to become law is the "Return to Play Act," aimed at increasing education and awareness about the risks of youth concussions. The legislation requires public and private schools to provide information to parents of student athletes about the dangers and risk of concussions and establish certain policies for dealing with student head injuries.

Under the law, any young athlete who exhibits signs of a concussion must be removed from play and evaluated by a health care provider. If the athlete sustains a concussion, a health care provider must provide medical clearance before he or she can return to play.

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