Spending might be secretive under bill

Lobbyists reported shelling out $175,000 for lodging and other travel-related expenses for Georgia lawmakers over the past five years: Bowl games and the Daytona 500. Hunting trips. A fact-finding jaunt to a Southern California observatory.

In most cases, though, the lobbyists’ clients are hosting legislators at conventions held in warm and sunny climes.

The insurance agents seem to like Amelia Island Plantation in Florida. Georgia’s food industry meets in Orlando this year. Other trade groups prefer in-state resorts on the coast or in the mountains.

Details of these expenses can be found in lobbyists’ reports filed online with the State Ethics Commission. But that spending might become a secret under a bill crafted by House Speaker David Ralston’s staff that is expected to come to a vote this week.

The speaker’s bill would require lobbyists to disclose payments that they actually make for meals, drinks, transportation and lodging for elected officials to attend a meeting. The lobbyist would not report those expenses if the client, rather than the lobbyist, paid for them.

Clarity was the rationale for dropping those trips from lobbyists’ disclosures, Ralston said in a recent interview. “If a lobbyist did not pay for something,” he said, “a requirement to disclose that they did would fail to accomplish the accuracy and transparency that we seek.”

Here’s the problem: It’s unclear whether the law requires anyone to report this spending if the lobbyists don’t. No one else seems to be disclosing this travel now. And anything involving more than one person — even a trip to the Super Bowl with a lobbyist — could be considered a “meeting.”

Ralston said state law already requires legislators to report expenses that are related to “maintaining of their elected office.” These would be considered in-kind campaign contributions, he said.

But the State Ethics Commission, which enforces Georgia’s campaign finance laws, does not typically regard such expenses as political contributions.

“It would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis whether a trip is related to campaigning or fulfillment of office,” said Tom Plank, an attorney at the State Ethics Commission. “Ultimately that would be a decision for the commissioners to make.”

House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson says he plans to amend the bill to make sure, one way or another, that those expenses are disclosed.

But until he does, government watchdogs say, the bill would allow special interests to shower lawmakers with travel-related gifts with no disclosure and no penalty. Smaller gifts would have to be reported if they did not involve attendance at a meeting.

“This would allow lobbyists to send legislators on a first-class, round-trip to Paris to visit the Eiffel Tower and pay for them to dine at the finest restaurants and not have to disclose them,” said Angela Speir Phelps, a former public service commissioner who’s now executive director of the consumer group Georgia Watch.

“Meanwhile, you buy a legislator a sub sandwich from Subway and a Coca-Cola and that has to be reported,” Phelps said. “It’s completely backwards and upside down and wrong.”

The people, the amounts

Top lawmakers whose travel has been paid by lobbyists:

Senate insurance chairman Ralph Hudgens (R-Hull) was the beneficiary of $9,375 of travel-related spending since 2005, more than any other lawmaker, lobbyist records show.

Insurance interests paid most of that. He’s spoken at the Independent Insurance Agents’ conference for five years running. GEICO, State Farm, Allstate and others picked up the tab at Chateau Elan.

Four other committee chairmen in the House accepted $6,000 or more in travel-related gifts since 2005: Larry O’Neal (R-Bonaire) of Ways and Means; Roger Williams (R-Dalton) of Regulated Industries; former Rules Chairman Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs); and Mike Coan (R-Lawrenceville) of Industrial Relations.

Look this stuff up yourself on the State Ethics Commission’s Web site: http://www.ethics.ga.gov/Reports/Lobbyist/Lobbyist_ByExpenditures.aspx. Search by legislator, lobbyist, interest group or description (think “golf” or “Daytona 500.”). Or, click Search without filling in any of the blanks and get a list of all lobbyist gifts that can be downloaded for leisure reading.

Jim Walls, retired investigations editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, runs the watchdog news Web site atlantaunfiltered.com.