ATLANTA – Candidates for state offices next year will have a lot more cash at their disposal thanks to a law that promises to fundamentally alter the nature of campaigning in Georgia.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, authorizes the creation of “leadership committees” that can raise and spend unlimited contributions on behalf of top statewide and legislative candidates. Recipients also will be able to accept committee donations at any time of the year, including while the General Assembly is in session.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the measure this year virtually along party lines, with Democrats warning that allowing unlimited campaign contributions will increase the influence of special interests in Georgia politics at a time when public trust in government already is low.

“These leadership committees take away all the restrictions that have been put in place over the years to control big money,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta.

Senate Bill 221 will create eight leadership committees to be chaired by Georgia’s governor, lieutenant governor, the general-election nominees opposing those two statewide incumbents and the heads of the majority and minority caucuses of the state House of Representatives and Senate.

No caps on contributions, but disclosure necessary

There will be no cap on contributions to the committees, which for individual candidates range from $14,000 to $22,200 for statewide posts and $5,600 to $8,600 for legislative seats, depending on whether a candidate is forced into primary and/or general-election runoffs.

However, donations to the new committees will be subject to the same disclosure requirements that apply to statewide and legislative campaigns under current law, said Edward Lindsey, a partner in the Atlanta office of international law firm Dentons LLP and a former House majority whip.

“There’s not any dark money here,” Lindsey said.

Funds can be solicited, accepted during session

The leadership committees also will not be subject to the law prohibiting statewide officeholders and legislators from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions during General Assembly sessions.

Lindsey said that change will help officeholders better compete against primary challengers under the accelerated schedule adopted in recent years, which shifted party primaries from July to May. Legislative sessions typically don’t end until late March or early April.

“Officeholders were at a distinct disadvantage … when they were in a position of having to run in primaries,” Lindsey said.

Law leaves out primary challengers

But Jordan said it’s primary challengers – not incumbent officeholders – who will be put at a disadvantage by the new law.

While Senate Bill 221 lets Georgia’s two top statewide incumbents and their general-election opponents form leadership committees, anyone who wants to mount a primary challenge against one of those incumbents remains subject to the current law’s cap on donations and the time limit on contributions.

“If you’re a Republican challenging [Gov. Brian] Kemp in a primary, he can raise money during the [legislative] session,” Jordan said.

Going further, Jordan suggested incumbent protection may have been what Republican leaders had in mind in crafting the bill.

“Since the GOP is very fractured, there’s more likelihood of a primary challenge,” she said. “That’s a real problem for them. This is how they think they can solve it.”

Lindsey dismissed that line of argument. He said leadership committees are not obligated to support incumbents in a primary.

“There’s nothing to keep leadership committees from backing any candidate,” he said.

Beyond how the new law will affect primary campaigns, opponents are raising the broader issue of what unlimited contributions will mean to the role of money in politics.

“It would allow big corporations and out-of-state big money donors to buy our elections,” Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill back in March.

“In last year’s elections, private donors spent $24 million on Georgia House races and $12.5 million on Georgia Senate races – and that was with existing donation limits. This bill would allow unlimited donations, so who knows how much money special interests will be willing to ‘invest’ in our elections.”

Lobbies, corporate donors will pay more

Jordan said unlimited contributions will put pressure on lobbyists under the Gold Dome to pony up larger donations.

“This is the worst thing ever for them because it increases how much they have to pay up to get in the game,” she said.

Lindsey said the leadership-committee approach to political giving reflects the way the process actually works.

“Politics is a team sport,” he said. “In order to get things done, it takes a team effort. This legislation promotes that philosophy.”

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Dave Williams is bureau chief for Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.