Ga. lobbyists unite, but some want out of club
By JIM WALLS
What, exactly, is a lobbyist?
That’s the common thread in countless conversations around the Capitol these days as lobbyists organize themselves and Georgia’s new ethics law kicks in.
Rudy Underwood wants to spread the word that lobbyists are people, too, with ethics just like other professions. He and others filed papers last week to create a trade group for lobbyists, which they hope will help raise their standards and correct public misperceptions of their role in policy-making.
Public-interest groups, meanwhile, believe the legal definition of lobbying needs to be narrowed and registration fees reduced to encourage citizen involvement.
And ethics-compliance lawyer Doug Chalmers suggests lobbyists pushing for government contracts are only lobbyists if they’re hired specifically to influence official decisions. He raises what could become a burning question for thousands of Georgians who want to sell stuff to state and local government agencies.
With the formation of the Georgia Professional Lobbyist Association, Underwood said, Georgia becomes one of roughly 20 states with such a trade group. Some, like North Carolina’s and Florida’s, post their own codes of ethics and offer continuing education on legal and other issues.
Underwood, who is registered to lobby for the chemical and plastics industries, hopes the association will spur lobbyists to compare notes and smooth over the occasional spat between opposite sides of an issue.
“You’re going to have different viewpoints but you should still be friends when it’s over,” he said.
In 27 years on the job, Underwood said, he’s seen a gradual “chipping away” in lobbyists’ public image. The public doesn’t generally understand, he said, that most serve a vital function by educating lawmakers in often arcane subjects.
“You have to make sure you’ve researched your issues, make sure you know what your points are, what the other side’s points are, so a [legislator] can understand both sides,” he said.
The new Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, meanwhile, wants to simplify the process so PTA presidents and other “citizen lobbyists” can better communicate with their elected officials.
Georgia now collects an annual fee from every lobbyist for the first time since the 1990s. But the $320 fee is too steep, Common Cause director William Perry says, and can have a chilling effect on citizens and small non-profit groups.
Legislators should trim that fee by half, the alliance believes, and let people spend more on gifts and entertainment before they must register as lobbyists. That gift threshold, now $250, should be raised to $1,000, they say.
Business interests, too, are pushing for a narrower interpretation of the lobbyist law.
The state’s new ethics law extends lobbyist rules for vendors. The rules previously applied only to vendors doing business with state agencies and now apply as well to those selling to municipal and county governments.
Perhaps more problematic, a strict interpretation of the law might limit how government contractors can pay sales people.
Georgia law requires that lobbyists be paid a flat fee, rather than a so-called “contingency fee.” The practice is meant to minimize the temptation to offer a bribe.
But does that mean a sales person can’t be paid on commission? Chalmers says no, and he’s asked the State Campaign Finance Commission to agree by clarifying the difference between lobbying and selling.
On another front, Chalmers wants the commission to declare that a CEO who expresses an opinion to an elected official is not automatically a lobbyist. Business executives should only have to register as lobbyists, he contends, if their employment agreements expressly mention lobbying.
The Campaign Finance Commission, which is working on responses to both of Chalmers’ requests, should take care to work through the implications of these requests.
Exempting sales people or CEOs from lobbyist disclosure rules would allow them, if they wished, to hide any gratuity they might offer to a decision-maker. And relying on language in employment contracts would give influence-peddlers the power to decide whether they need to file as lobbyists.
In an era of blossoming government transparency, Georgia should err on the side of disclosure. The public needs to know more about how its government operates, not less.