Lobbyist gifts trailed off in January, to $240,000

Lobbyists spent a hair under $240,000 last month feeding and entertaining returning state lawmakers, many of whom were debating whether to cap or ban such behavior.

That’s a lot of food and drink and fun, but in fact the January total is a fairly dramatic 35 percent decline from last year, when special interests poured about $369,000 into the Gold Dome.

The decrease in spending continues a trend begun last year as voters, the media and government watchdog groups began agitating for reform. Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said the decline likely reflects the public’s heightened awareness of lawmakers’ behavior.

“I think they know they are being scrutinized and they are taking it seriously,” she said.

The League of Women Voters is one of number of groups from across the political spectrum pushing for a $100 cap on gifts. Poythress said the decline is great, but it is still not getting to where voters think it should be.

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“The whole idea of controlling lobbyist gifts is to bring it down to a reasonable amount,” she said. “I think $240,000 is a lot. It’s still a lot of money.”

Lobbyists reported 980 separate expenditures last month ranging from tens of thousands of dollars for large receptions to 50 cents for “half of a candy bar.”

Most of the money went toward events aimed at feeding the entire General Assembly. For example, the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce’s seafood feast – always the most costly single event of the legislative session – cost $82,500, compared to $88,000 in 2012. The annual reception by the Georgia Chemistry Council came in at a reported cost of $5,949, down 15 percent over last year.

Other groups bucked the trend, spending more than last year.

The Georgia Bankers Association spent $10,337 on its annual legislative reception, a 53 percent increase over 2012. Likewise, the pig roast annually sponsored by the law firm Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover increased by more than two-thirds to $47,461.

Brad Carver, head of government affairs for the firm, said the event, which also is a benefit for the Atlanta Food Bank, just keeps getting larger.

“We had about 800 people this year,” he said. “It’s a networking thing. We have elected officials there. We invite everybody, frankly. A number of them show up.”

While the parade of receptions that traditionally mark the start of the legislative year account for the most money, the most common expense still was the lobbyist-funded dinner party or the more intimate affair with a single legislator. Those types of expenditures decreased more dramatically, reports indicate.

The decline is easiest to see in the Senate, which adopted a rule on the first day of the session this year setting a $100 cap on such gifts.

Lobbyists spent on $7,383 on individual senators in January, less than half of the $15,965 spent on them last year. While lobbyists still reported 175 separate meals, sports tickets and trinkets, senators held fast to the $100 limit.

Freshman Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, accepted a $158 ticket to the Atlanta Falcons playoff game Jan. 13 against the Seattle Seahawks from the lobbyist for the Georgia World Congress Center Authority. Records show Harper refunded the cost of the ticket, something he said he meant to do the day of the game.

“I actually had written a check to pay for that ticket as soon as I got to the game and had left that check in my apartment,” he said. “Because of that it was a couple of days before I could get it to her and she had to report that.”

Technically, Harper could have accepted the ticket without any problem. The Senate did not convene and adopt its new rule until the next day.

“I knew the rules were changing and I wanted to abide by the rules. It’s good policy to pay for the things that I am given,” he said.

While House members do not have a similar rule on accepting gifts, lobbyists still spent 45 percent less feeding and entertaining representatives — $21,845 last month on 594 individual gifts, compared to $39,765 on 1,001 gifts last year.

Defenders of the current system say the reporting of lobbyist expenses is transparent to voters, but one thing that did not change from year to year is that lobbyists overwhelmingly reported they were spending the money for no reason. In most cases lobbyists wrote “N/A” or “none” when asked what bill they were lobbying.

Raymond White, lobbyist for the title loan company Select Management Resources, spent $2,540.16 on a Jan. 28 dinner for 13 representatives, seven senators, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and State Transportation Board Member Jeff Lewis. White reported spending $90.72 per person on the meal, which included some spouses of public officials.

White said the private meal at Antica Posta in Buckhead included a wine tasting with Salvatore Ferragamo, grandson of the footwear designer and president of his family’s Italian winery. White said he worked with the restaurant to keep the cost of the meal under the Senate cap.

“It’s just a dinner I’ve done on the last several years,” he said. “I told people this may be the last one, or I told them you may be paying for it.”

Along with Georgia, White is a registered lobbyist in Tennessee, which has a ban on lobbyist gifts. He said it is a stricter atmosphere in Nashville.

“People still socialize but when the check comes the legislator gets theirs and the lobbyist gets there,” he said. “Some lobbyists think it’s the end of the world, but it’s not. If you look around the country, nobody really does it like Georgia.”

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