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Scrutiny, economy limit 2010 lobbyist spending
If your local legislator looks like a winner from “The Biggest Loser,” there’s good reason: He has definitely been off his feed.
Even though the 2010 session lasted nearly a month longer than last year, lobbyist reports show they plunked down 15 percent less than the $981,000 they spent on wining, dining and entertaining Georgia lawmakers in 2009.
By the time Speaker David Ralston called sine die April 29, lobbyists had laid down just $837,000 on lawmaker schmoozing.
So what exactly did that pay for?
Food is often the way to get a legislator’s attention, and meals, snacks and drinks accounted for 90 percent of lobbyist spending this year. That included $18,000 for hospitality suites at the Landmark Condominiums, Wyndham Hotel and other legislative after-hours haunts.
Other than that:
- $12,786 went for tickets, mostly sports, concerts and the circus. About 30 legislators attended a $4,500 reception at the April 20 Braves game for retiring Sen. Don Thomas. (Braves won, 4-3, on Nate McLouth’s 10th-inning walkoff homer.)
- The Georgia Oilmen’s Association spent $1,738 on complimentary copies of the AJC. (Way to go, oilmen!)
- A handful of legislators hit the links or went quail hunting on a lobbyist’s dime. The University System treated Reps. Amy Carter, Bob Lane and Jay Roberts to a movie.
Legislators and lobbyists insist these events are important for getting acquainted and discussing policy, particularly with the state budget so tight.
Mickey Channell, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on health care, is always in demand when he’s at the Capitol.
Most days, he says, “I have an office full of people, and I have another eight, 10 people waiting to come in. … You run out of time during the day, literally. What the night is for me is an extension of the day.”
Channell said he typically drops by his condo for a few minutes around 6 p.m., then “I leave and go out and have a meal with this group or that group.”
Lobbyists’ relative restraint this year can be attributed to the recession, as well as what House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson delicately termed “the situation” with former Speaker Glenn Richardson, who stepped down Jan. 1 after revelations of an alleged affair with a lobbyist.
“The situation was a real wake-up call,” Wilkinson said. “The increased scrutiny … was a reminder of who legislators really work for, and that’s their constituents.”
Lawmakers were not so embarrassed that they didn’t leave the door open for more generous gifting in the future. They rejected efforts to cap gifts at $100, at $25, and even a last-minute pitch for a $50 cap with an exemption for meals.
Wilkinson believes gift bans or caps don’t really work, because “there’s too many ways around it.” A ban, he said, would also encourage lobbyists to go “underground” and skip reporting anything about their activities.
That, he said, is why lawmakers passed an ethics bill that will require lobbyists to report spending more than twice as often as they do now.
“My intention has been immediate disclosure about any gift, any meal, any entertainment, tickets etc.,” he said. That way, constituents can check on lobbyist spending “with just a click of a mouse” and decide for themselves whether it’s appropriate.
Wilkinson concedes, though, that he personally winds up on a lobbyist’s expense account only rarely: “The ethics chairman does not get asked out very often.”
You can check out lobbyist spending online at www.ethics.ga.gov/Reports/Lobbyist/Lobbyist_ByExpenditures.aspx.