Lobbyists give Georgia lawmakers a $400,000 buffet

Lobbyists spent more than $400,000 on group events over three months during the 2017 legislative session which ended in March.

Those group expenditures ranged from large, open-invitation buffets at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot across from the Capitol to dinners hosted at some of Atlanta’s best restaurants, where entire committees were feted by special interests.

While individual gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers are capped at $75 per gift, many such group events have no cost ceiling. That loophole was written in the 2013 ethics reform bill lawmakers passed after years of voters’ clamoring for change.

This year, a group of lobbyists to host a private dining experience for the Senate Regulated Industries Committee at Wisteria, an Inman Park restaurant. The cost for the 14-member committee was reported as $5,315.

While lobbyists consider a private meal with an individual lawmaker the most effective, group meals are efficient. As a result, lobbyists spent $4 on group events for every $1 they spent on an individual lawmaker.

The 2013 reforms made an effort to rein in spending on groups, but it’s not clear that is happening. For instance, the law requires the House and Senate ethics committees to approve a list of caucuses eligible to partake in lobbyist-sponsored dinners and limit lobbyists to hosting a single dinner per committee. This year, the Senate failed to approve any and the House committee did not issue its list until six weeks after the session began.

Nonetheless, lobbyists filed expenses for at least 54 such group events without the House committee’s blessing. An Atlanta expert on political law says that unless the per capita cost exceeds $75 per person, such events need no further permission and lobbyists aren’t required to report individually the lawmakers who attended.

Do the 2013 limits on lobbyist spending work? For more read this week's AJC Watchdog column here.