Lobbyists line the halls as the first session gets underway in January. Miss America 2016, Georgia’s 2016, Betty Cantrell, from Warner Robins, was a surprise guest in the House at the opening session of the Georgia Legislature. After months of declines, lobbyist spending is on the rise again. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Lobbyists fatten Ga. officials with steak, wine and a $24 hat

The Era of Ethics Reform is over – at least at the Georgia General Assembly.

For the first time in five years, state lawmakers and their longtime lobbyist companions ate enough, drank enough and traveled enough to increase total spending on reported gifts.

This buffet of politics and special access racked up $813,806 of reported spending last year in gifts from lobbyists to public officials, an increase of 10 percent over the prior year. And their appetite is growing, as early returns on 2016 show another increase in the making.

The figures appear to show that lawmakers and lobbyists have fully adjusted to reforms that officially took effect just two years ago and business as usual has resumed.

Sen. Josh McKoon, the Republican firebrand who pushed ethics reform before becoming better known for pushing “religious liberty” legislation, said the higher spending is “another indicator in a series of indicators” that the ethics law isn’t working.

“There were a lot of loopholes that were put in the law,” he said of the legislation passed in 2013. “Now you are seeing the effect of it all. People were lying low due to how it looked. … We’re getting close to crossing the $1 million threshold for what is a small universe of people.”

Beginning in 2012, a bipartisan coalition of groups began pressuring lawmakers to rein in their endless buffet of cocktails and steak dinners paid for by special interests. Under state law, public officials could take whatever they wanted whenever they wanted from registered lobbyists, so long as the lobbyists disclosed the gifts.

Increased attention to the practice put such spending into a nosedive immediately. From February 2012 through the end of 2013, year-over-year spending declined 19 out of 24 months. Annual spending was cut in half from its 2011 record mark of $1.8 million.

Publicly shamed lawmakers passed the first-ever restrictions on lobbyist spending in 2013. Under the new law, spending continued to fall as lobbyists and politicians probed its depths.

They hit bottom in October 2014. From that point on, spending rebounded, increasing 13 out of the last 17 months.

One reason for the increased spending — apart from a lack of public vigilance — is that the 2013 reforms are riddled with exemptions. The spine of the reforms was a $75 cap on the most common gifts, including meals.

But the legislation exempted group events, meaning an insurance industry lobbyist could attend a Senate Insurance Committee meeting in the afternoon and then be free to spend endlessly for a catered meal for the committee members later that evening.

And, of course, that’s exactly what happens.

Just this session, the Senate Insurance Committee met the afternoon of Feb. 22, and later that day they convened for a committee dinner paid for by a coalition of insurance lobbyists. That’s not a cherry-picked example. The 40-day session is so packed with similar events it’s a wonder our legislators can stomach so many free meals.

Of course, some days are more abundant than others. Watch for a story coming Sunday by my colleague, James Salzer, where he breaks down spending on Sine Die, the last day of the session when lobbyists sweat out the fates of their prized legislation.

Another busy day is Crossover Day — the 30th day of the session and the day when most bills must pass either the House or the Senate or die. This year, lobbyists spent more than $10,000 on catered meals, snacks and assorted treats on that day, the strangest of which is a $24 hat given generically to the General Assembly by an Augusta Chamber of Commerce lobbyist.

After a little digging and a quick conversation with the lobbyist, I discovered every member of the General Assembly arrived one day to find a $24 Master’s golf tournament hat on their desk. If every member received one, the total cost should be around $5,664. The lobbyist said he was unclear about how such a gift was supposed to be reported, so he made his best effort.

That $24 hat is an example of another problem with lobbyist spending. Registered lobbyists must regularly report what they spend on public officials, but the reporting is so sloppy and imprecise that it is hard to peer into who received what and why.

In fact, the most common reason lobbyists put down for why they spend money is “none” or “N/A.” Last year, lobbyists wrote some version of that answer for about 85 percent reported spending last year.

Almost immediately after the $75 cap was passed, lobbyists and lawmakers interpreted it to mean that multiple lobbyists could split checks to keep their guest under the cap. As a result, the cap was easily escaped. With two lobbyists, a lawmaker was safe to have a $100 steak dinner just like in the pre-reform era. But what about their dates?

The ethics commission viewed spouses and other guests as falling within the $75 cap, but in practice many lobbyists had been counting their meals as a separate gift.

This year legislators changed the law in the final hours of the last day of the session by inserting into an otherwise unrelated bill that the cap was $75 “per person” so that spouses were free to order dessert.

For generations lawmakers have treated lobbyists’ credit cards as perks of the job. Back in 2012, when I asked a Democratic House member from Atlanta why he was letting lobbyists pay for his dinner, he complained to me about the low pay legislators receive.

“We only make $17,500 a year. You know?” he said and intimated that he would leave the House if he had to give up lobbyist-funded meals. A few months later, he lost his seat in a redistricting battle and has tried unsuccessfully to make it back.

If and when he does, the lobbyists will be waiting.

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