Lobbyists asked to sponsor Senate lunches

What’s the price of a good baloney sandwich in the state Senate? The chamber’s Republican committee chairmen may be about to find out.

Fresh from a historic vote three weeks ago that set a $100 cap on lobbyists’ gifts to all state senators, lobbyists were asked Monday whether they would help pay for group lunches of the majority’s chairmen every Tuesday and Wednesday during the legislative session.

The solicitation came in an email from a legislative aide to Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who defended the practice. It was a working lunch, she said, costing about $8 for each of about 25 GOP chairmen. About half that group meets one day; the other half meets the day after.

Up next? A chairmen’s meeting Tuesday featuring a sandwich, cup of noodles and a cookie.

“It’s not elaborate, it’s not like it’s a fancy buffet,” Unterman said. “The purpose of the meeting is to extract what is happening in each committee so we know what is happening in the Senate.”

Essentially, the chairmen fill each other in on which bills have been assigned to their committees, what the bills mean and what happened once the committee acted.

This is not the first year the request for group lunch “sponsorships” has occurred. During the session last year, state records show lobbyists spent more than $2,700 on chairmen lunches — including more than $430 spent on “lunch from Willy’s” by the Georgia Association of Realtors.

The sponsorships have come even as legislators receive per diem worth $173 a day to help with expenses such as food or lodging.

Some senators said continuing the lunches may not send the best message.

Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly supported a cap in nonbinding referendums during the July primaries. Ethics watchdogs are pushing for a law that would make the Senate cap, and other restrictions, permanent.

The new Senate rule, which applies only to that chamber, does not allow a senator to accept an individual gift worth more than $100, including a private lunch. Such gifts, however, may be made to an entire committee or subcommittee — a loophole that applies in this case because the group is technically known as the chairmen’s committee.

“Certainly, it’s something lobbyists would find interesting because it’s something that helps them build relationships,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said of the lunches. But, he added, “I think the spirit of the new rule is to assure the people of Georgia we’re being responsible. This puts that into question.”

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Staff writer Chris Joyner contributed to this article.