Lobbyists fill the spectator seats inside a Senate Finance Committee meeting during the 2017 legislative session. Since the General Assembly took up ethics reform in 2013, lobbyists have spent $4 million in gifts to public officials. DAVID BARNES / AJC
Photo: David Barnes
Photo: David Barnes

Capitol scorecard: Ga. ethics reform five years later

Five years ago, state lawmakers convened in Atlanta and set about the task of ethics reform with the enthusiasm of teenagers told to clean their rooms.

For years, lobbyists were allowed to give unlimited gifts of any value to public officials as long as they reported them. But a prolonged pressure campaign by “good government” groups and embarrassing media exposure pushed lawmakers to pass a new law during the 2013 legislative session limiting gifts, in most cases, to $75 or less.

There are a lot of loopholes. For example, hotel and food for out-of-town meetings and conventions are allowed if the official plays a substantial role in the program. Also, lobbyists can combine forces to exceed the $75 cap by splitting costs of meals.

Total spending has fallen as a result of the reforms, but much about the old system survived. As the Legislature reconvenes this week, here’s a look at some takeaways from the last five years.

Lobbyists have spent $4 million in five years

Yes, lobbyists are spending less than they did before the reform, but they still are spending a lot money. Since 2013 lobbyists have spent an average of $814,589 annually for a total of a little more than $4 million, according to an analysis of disclosures by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The lowest total was 2014 — the year the 2013 reforms went into effect. That year lobbyists reported spending $736,933, less than half what lobbyists were spending in 2011, the year before ethics reform emerged as a serious issue.

The highest total was the $921,279 lobbyists spent in 2013, much of which came as lawmakers debated reform. The second largest total came in last year when lobbyists spent $843,703. That’s an 11 percent increase over 2016 but still way below the totals of the pre-reform era.

Breaking news: Money follows power

Lawmakers used to defend the practice of allowing lobbyists to pick up their dinner tab or travel costs by saying it’s just what good friends do for each other. Turns out, if you are in leadership or on an important committee, you have a lot more friends.

Over the first five years of the Reform Era, lobbyists spent at least $29,006 on Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, more than any other lawmaker. The gifts range from a $3.25 iced tea to thousands spent on lodging and meals to bring the nine-term North Georgia lawmaker to speak at conventions for industries ranging from railroads to beer wholesalers.

Hot on Mullis’ heels is Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville. Lobbyists reported spending $24,137 on vice chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, who is in his fourth term. Harrell also is vice chair of House Rules and House Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight.

Other lawmakers topping the lobbyist spending list include Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega ($20,923); Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville ($20,383) and Rep. Jason Shaw, R-Lakeland ($20,258). The first Democrat on the list is former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta ($16,989), who came in eighth overall. Abrams is no longer in the Legislature, having resigned to run for governor.

Surrounded by legislative leaders, Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 142 on May 6, 2013, setting the first limits on gifts that can be given to legislators. The $75 maximum is for each expenditure. Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis (far left front) has accepted $29,000 in lobbyist gifts in the last five years — tops among lawmakers. JOHNNY CRAWFORD / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Big business has deep pockets

The biggest spender among lobbyists is always the same. Over the past five years, the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce has spent $576,215, almost all of which goes to its annual legislative seafood boil.

The Georgia Automobile Dealers Association comes in a distant second at $149,333 for the five year period. Georgia Power came in at $149,205. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce spent $115,718, while Georgia EMC spent $81,469.

Hospitality knows no limits

The most common expense lobbyists claim is for food. While dinners are the typical perk lawmakers accept, it doesn’t end there. From 2013, lobbyists spent an average of $12,000 annually stocking the bars in a handful of “hospitality suites” around the Capitol. There’s one in the downtown Sheraton and another in the Landmark condos a few blocks from the Gold Dome and they offer free cocktails and snacks for lawmakers during the legislative session. Apart from the expense, these informal gatherings allow lobbyists to argue for their causes and pet projects in a casual setting. The public isn’t invited.

Because none of the stocking of these suites is aimed at a specific lawmaker, this type of spending doesn’t abide by the $75 cap.

Free tickets to sporting and entertainment events used to be a big part of some lobbyists’ game. In 2013, lobbyists declared $27,044 in tickets ranging from Braves and Falcons seat to concerts and even the circus. The ethics reform bill banned those types of gifts, dropping that category to virtually nothing (although some local officials still accept them). Conveniently, the same reform exempted government lobbyists, meaning elected officials could still accept tickets to collegiate games, such as last week’s Rose Bowl, as the AJC reported.

Many states have opted for tougher restrictions or total bans on lobbyist gifts, often in the wake of a scandal. Georgia’s lawmakers did not opt go in that direction, aiming instead for a middle ground. Five years and $4 million later, voters can decide whether it worked.

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out.What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.