Calls for ethics reform endanger an important fall legislative tradition: catching the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets from the university president’s box.
And, if UGA and Georgia Tech have good seasons, getting free tickets to their bowl games.
But those freebies could go the way of the dropkick and leather helmets if the General Assembly approves a lobbyist gift ban during the upcoming legislative session.
UGA, Tech and other schools with football programs in Georgia dole out $25,000 to $30,000 or more each football season in tickets and meals to lawmakers and other top state officials, according to lobbyist disclosure reports. When the Bulldogs or Yellow Jackets earn a bowl bid, at least a few lawmakers often tag along, compliments of the school’s fund-raising foundations.
The games are an important lobbying tool for big state schools: lawmakers vote on a state budget each year that includes $1.8 billion or more in funding for public colleges and universities.
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The question is whether any gift ban or limit the General Assembly approves will include tickets given to state lawmakers and officials.
“Absolutely, I’d like to see them do away with everything,” said Kay Godwin of Georgia Conservatives in Action, part of the coalition pushing for limiting or eliminating lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. Currently there’s no limit on lobbyist spending.
But Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who heads a House budget subcommittee on higher education, said there’s nothing wrong with schools inviting lawmakers to campus for games, and he would lean toward supporting an exemption for the tickets.
“I think it’s a benefit to the schools for the legislators who make decisions on those schools to come to those football games,” said Ehrhart, who typically goes to a UGA game each year. “I think they are able to show off the university at those events.”
That’s the main argument made by colleges, who sometimes spend big money to have legislators on campus. College lobbyists point out that money they spend comes from school fund-raising foundations, not from taxpayers.
UGA and Tech hold “legislative days” at their stadiums each year. They have big pre-game receptions and then host dozens of lawmakers and their spouses to watch a little football.
For UGA, most of the “legislative day” games in recent years have been on days they face SEC opponents. This year’s, on Sept. 22, was against the Commodores of Vanderbilt. It turned out to be a good day to bring in more than 60 lawmakers and their spouses: UGA romped 48-3. UGA lobbyist Patricia Chastain reported spending about $15,000 on legislators, and another $360 on tickets for Attorney General Sam Olens, Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Kristy Lindstrom, communications director for Speaker David Ralston.
Tech had its “legislative day” Sept. 15. It cost about $4,800 for lawmakers and $50 for tickets given to Olens. Again, it turned out to be a good day to show off the team and school: Tech pounded Virginia 56-20.
Tech has seen fewer lawmakers taking tickets this year than in the past, but UGA’s Sanford Stadium has been popular all season.
Chastain handed out $1,400 worth of tickets to lawmakers in November as UGA was working its way through the back end of its schedule. Getting tickets didn’t necessarily depend on what lawmakers could do for the school during the upcoming session. Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, who lost his bid for re-election in the Republican primary, got $80 worth of tickets to three games in November. Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, who also lost his primary election, got tickets to two games. Both attended UGA’s showdown with Georgia Tech.
None of the totals for this year includes anything the schools put out for the SEC and ACC title games or their upcoming bowl games. Typically, schools invite legislative leaders to those games.
UGA bowl games in particular have traditionally had a strong legislative following.
One of the pricier came in January 2008, when UGA lobbyists spent $6,600 sending seven lawmakers — including then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson — to the Sugar Bowl. The school paid for lodging, tickets and a gift for Richardson. For Hudgens, then a state senator, the school also paid for transportation to New Orleans, according to lobbyist disclosures.
Twelve months later, Tech lobbyists reported spending $5,600 for legislative/state government tickets to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl game against LSU. Among those listed as getting tickets: Gov. Sonny Perdue. Tech lobbyist Dene Sheheane reported spending $800 on tickets for Perdue. Upon taking office, Perdue signed an executive order saying he and most other state employees wouldn’t take gifts valued at more than $25.
The prices lobbyists put on individual game tickets during the regular season typically run less than $100, so they might remain legal if lawmakers place a limit on gifts rather than an outright ban.
While the University System isn’t taking a stand on the possible ban on football tickets, Sheheane is reluctant to see the chance to have legislators on campus go away.
“I would hope whatever would be decided would allow public officials to visit campuses, whether that’s for a student concert or an athletic event,” he said. “We have a lot of legislators who have never been to campus. We are introducing leaders to what is going on,” he said.
Sheheane said on “legislative days,” lawmakers meet with student association presidents and key faculty, along with the school’s president.
Chastain of UGA said much the same thing. “We’re a public university and 30 percent of our funding comes from state appropriations. It’s important for us to have open communications with legislators, and it gives us an opportunity to do that on many levels.”
Public colleges have had a lot at stake in recent years. State funding for the University System has dropped from about $2.1 billion to $1.8 billion a year since the middle of 2008; the system raised tuition and fees to make up the difference.
In addition, colleges get hundreds of millions of dollars in construction money each year from the state. Lawmakers this year approved borrowing $59 million for a biosystems building at Georgia Tech and $52 million for a veterinary school project at UGA. Georgia State University, whose football program attracts fewer legislative attendees than UGA and Tech, is hoping for $57 million this year for a new law school building.
Some lawmakers seeing attending the games as part of their job.
Rep. Chuck Williams, R-Watkinsville, a member of the House Higher Education Committee, attended five UGA games this fall. He also attended Georgia Tech’s “legislative day” event. His district is near UGA’s campus and many of his constituents work at the school.
“For me, it’s all about being an engaged legislator,” he said. “I am probably on UGA’s campus twice or three times a week. For me, football Saturday is just an extension of all the time I spend on UGA’s campus. Any time I can interact with faculty and staff, it gives me an opportunity to better understand what is going on at the institution.”
Williams said watching a game from the president’s suite doesn’t take a chance to see the game away from a paying customer. However, he added, he took a pass on the SEC title game and refused UGA’s offer to host him at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando Jan. 1.
“It’s perception,” Williams said. “Those UGA employees who have gone three or four years without a pay raise, I don’t want to explain to them how they went without a raise and I went to the game.”