Freebies at the Capitol decline

Gift caps and public scrutiny having an impact, but lobbyists and lawmakers find new ways to skirt the rules. An $800 tab at one restaurant.

Lobbyist spending drops since 2011

2011: $1,821,903

2012: $1,382,000

2013: $921,279

2014: $736,933

Source: state ethics commission

Logon to my to explore an interactive graphic of lobbyist spending in Georgia and track proposed laws on the Georgia Legislative Navigator, the AJC’s comprehensive web page for legislative news and information.

Logon to my to explore an interactive graphic of lobbyist spending in Georgia and track proposed laws on the Georgia Legislative Navigator, the AJC’s comprehensive web page for legislative news and information.

Logon to my to explore an interactive graphic of lobbyist spending in Georgia and track proposed laws on the Georgia Legislative Navigator, the AJC’s comprehensive web page for legislative news and information.

Media scrutiny and public pressure have taken a toll on the dinners, drinks and other gifts lobbyists have long offered Georgia lawmakers in exchange for a listening ear.

For the third straight year, spending by lobbyists on legislators has declined, solidifying a trend that began when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a coalition of good government groups aggressively reported the millions spent to influence legislation under the Gold Dome.

The Legislature bowed to public pressure in 2013 and instituted a gift cap of $75 that took effect last year. Lobbyists are spending less. But they are also finding new ways to game the law.

The AJC found several instances when lobbyists split meal checks to stay below the $75 gift cap, and several more when they blew the cap entirely. Two lawmakers told the AJC they planned to reimburse lobbyists for money spent on them after learning from the newspaper that they’d exceeded the cap.

Overall, lobbying spending declined 20 percent in 2014 and has dropped 60 percent since 2011, from $1.8 million to $736,933 last year.

Sen. Josh McKoon, one of the early supporters of lobbying reform in the General Assembly, said he believes the attention focused on spending by lobbyists has at least made politicians aware of the issue.

“I think people are much more cognizant of, ‘OK this is a lobbyist expense. How much is being spent on me?’ I think people are much more sensitive to that,” McKoon, R-Columbus, said. “In my first year coming in it was sort of Katy bar the door.”

Still, Georgia lawmakers still don’t have to look far for a free meal.

When Gov. Nathan Deal gave his State of the State address on Jan. 14, lobbyists spent $23,288 plying legislators with food and drink.

That total includes 54 separate disclosures for meals or drinks between lawmakers and lobbyists representing cable companies, the Georgia Association of Realtors and Chevron, to name a few. Other lobbyists underwrote the large receptions of the day, including a legislative breakfast, a reception for the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, and $538 in alcohol for the “Okefenokee Occasion.”

And that’s just one day.

Last month, lobbyists spent $161,534 on lawmakers, almost half of which was spent in one night by the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce. The rest came in more than 900 individual gift disclosures from lobbyists representing dozens of interests ranging from car title pawn shops to AT&T.

Gaming the system

The reforms that went into effect in 2014 capped most gifts at $75, but the cap is hardly strict. Lobbyists commonly combine forces, splitting the cost of pricey dinners to keep officials from exceeding the cap, the AJC discovered by analyzing reports submitted to the state ethics commission.

On Jan. 28, seven senators, including President Pro Temp David Shafer and Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, attended a dinner paid for by Georgia EMC and Oglethorpe Power. The total was more than $800, but no senator eclipsed the $75 mark because of how lobbyists split the tab.

Among those at the dinner was freshman Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, who said he has accepted dinner invitations from a variety of lobbyists as a way to learn the ropes and rub elbows with legislative leaders.

“Each one is different,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “Gosh, I’ve been to two this week. Both of them there was some (legislative) leadership there.”

Kirk said he thinks people misunderstand the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists.

“Lobbyists play a role up here that I didn’t really understand until I was elected. They help educate us on what the issues are,” he said. “If we didn’t have lobbyists, then who would we depend on to educate us on the needs of the different things? It would be your bureaucrats mostly.”

When asked why he had to accept gratuities from lobbyists to gain their insights, Kirk said it’s tradition.

“What do you do when you ask a date out? Dinner and a movie. It’s part of our culture,” he said. “I think it’s a cultural thing. It’s the lobbyists’ way to take it one step further.”

Kirk’s dinner came to $117.69, but two Georgia EMC and one Oglethorpe lobbyist split it at $39.23 each. Kirk said he was unaware of the cost of the meal — “I never see the prices,” he said — and could not remember the specifics of the dinner.

“I’ve been to so many,” he said.

AJC finds violations

The loopholes in the cap make it hard to violate the law. Still, it happens.

On Jan. 28, the same day Shafer, Kirk and other legislators were being entertained by Georgia EMC and Ogelthorpe Power, a lobbyist representing banking giant Synovus took House Banking Chairman Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, out to dinner at Nino’s, an Italian restaurant in the Morningside area of north Atlanta. Morris’ meal topped $88 and came just ahead of the introduction of House Bill 184, a bill cosponsored by Morris which revises the state’s banking regulation laws.

Morris said he was surprised the meal cost that much.

“I couldn’t imagine that it cost $88, but I don’t know,” he said. The lobbyist was Pete Robinson, a former legislator and powerful voice at the Capitol.

Morris said he and Robinson are longtime friends and that conversation at the dinner was general in nature and included talk about their common interest in Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon. Greg said he would write Robinson a check for the dinner “just so there is no misunderstanding.”

A week earlier, the lobbyist for ValueOptions, which last year signed an administrative services contract with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Services valued at up to $200 million over eight years, treated Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, to a dinner valued at $118.92. Gardner, who sits on the House Appropriations Health Subcommittee, said she took the dinner to discuss Fulton County’s needs under the contract, but she said she did not see the check.

“I do remember the dinner,” she said. “I can’t believe it was this expensive.”

Gardner said she would reimburse the lobbyist for the cost of the dinner. The AJC reviewed ethics records last week and found both lobbyists had filed amended reports reflecting the promised reimbursements.

Room for improvement

In general, McKoon said lawmakers are much more careful about which invitations they accept because of the $75 cap and increased scrutiny of lobbyists’ gifts.

In 2011, his first year in the Senate, McKoon said he was invited by another senator to join him at an Atlanta Thrashers hockey game.

“You are coming from the real world and you are thinking, ‘OK, this is a friend of mine asking me to a game,’” he said. Only when he got there did he realize the entire event was paid for by a lobbyist.

“You suddenly realize, ‘Oh, this is something altogether different from what I was expecting,’” he said.

That doesn’t happen in the current environment because lawmakers know the practice is more closely scrutinized, he said. Today “it’s definitely very clear,” he said.

So far this session, McKoon has had three modestly priced lunches and one drink at lobbyists’ expense with a combined total of $73.55. Others, like House Speaker David Ralston, have sworn off lobbyist gifts entirely.

McKoon said he thinks there is opportunity to follow up on the “relatively modest reforms” that instituted the $75 cap. He said it is time again for state leaders to begin the work of making themselves more transparent and accountable by strengthening the state’s conflict of interest laws and expanding laws governing open meetings and open records.

“I’m working on some things, but I’m also realistic,” he said.

Kirk, the freshman senator from Americus, said he thinks he will whittle down the number of lobbyist-funded events that he attends as he gets more comfortable in the job.

“I could see me getting it down to no more than once a week,” he said. “First of all, I’m not a late-night person.”