Lobbyist bend the ears of lawmakers at the state Capitol Thursday February 7, 2014. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Same lobbyists, different ambiance: new ethics rules take hold

Four years ago, when a lobbyist bought dinner for a state lawmaker, the two might savor steaks at Bone’s in Buckhead or some other fancy place. These days you’re more likely to find them at Applebee’s.

Lobbyist disclosures for January show they spent an average of $20.72 on dinner with a public official. For the same month in 2011, the average tab came to $132.

It’s all part of the new normal as lawmakers and the lobbyists who court them come to grips with a new law that imposes the first-ever limits on gifts to public officials. The law, passed last year by the General Assembly, caps most gifts at $75, although some are seeking ways to get around the cap.

This January, lobbyists disclosed spending just $82,355 — a 73 percent decline over 2011, when lobbyists spent nearly $308,000 on officials.

The declines are substantial, but Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss, an expert in public ethics, said the multi-year debate over ethics at the Capitol is about more than numbers.

“It’s a very healthy conversation, especially if people pull back and remind themselves why do we need a cap, what are we trying to prevent?” she said. “Ultimately what is at stake is a recognition that power is corrupting and that in a democracy if we want to insure our public representatives are genuinely seeking to represent the public interest, some rules need to be in place.”

Lobbyist spending on public officials has steadily declined in anticipation of the new law, but Mother Nature had a hand in last month’s dramatic drop, too.

The Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual seafood feast – annually the largest single lobbying expenditure – fell victim to Snowjam 2014. The soirée had been scheduled for Jan. 30, but chamber officials canceled it after Gov. Nathan Deal’s disaster declaration.

“Somebody else will have to take the top spot,” joked Bill Hubbard, chief executive officer of the Savannah chamber.

Last year’s feast cost a reported $82,500. Had the dinner gone off as scheduled, it would have doubled lobbyist spending for the month, but even that figure would have been significantly below last year’s total.

Hubbard said the cancellation was disappointing and inconvenient – dozens of officials had come up to take part – but he said the feast might be rescheduled. Hubbard said he wants to make sure the event would take place early enough in the session to provide his members time to influence legislation.

“It’s always nice to have a party, but it has to stand for something,” he said.

Another explanation for the lowered spending may be confusion about the new law.

Previously, there were no limits on what a registered lobbyist could spend on a public official in Georgia. Meals, football tickets, out-of-town trips were legal as long as the gift was publicly disclosed.

Last year, under pressure from constituents, watchdog groups and the media, lawmakers pushed through a bill capping most gifts at $75 and outlawing some pure entertainment like tickets to sporting events and vacation-style trips.

But there is plenty of wiggle room in the new law. For example, it allows uncapped expenditures on certain events. It also allows lobbyists to combine forces to exceed the cap. Meals provided for “caucuses” are exempt from the cap, but such groups must be formally recognized as a caucus by the House and Senate ethics committees to qualify.

The House Ethics Committee met Thursday to discuss requests from caucuses for the exemption, but lawmakers found themselves so confounded by the new law that nothing got done.

House Speaker Pro Temp Jan Jones, R-Milton, said there should be reasonable standards for recognized caucuses. One request came from “the Georgia diabetes caucus.”

“Is it comprised of people who have diabetes or people who care about diabetes?” she asked. “Next year it will be the lupus caucus.”

Jones said nothing prevents groups of lawmakers getting together. “You can still meet,” she said. “You can bring a brown bag or you can have a lobbyist pay for it as long as it’s under $75 and is disclosed.”

The committee adjourned without blessing any of the requesting groups. That’s a problem for the Fulton County legislative delegation, which had applied to be recognized as a “caucus” in advance of a catered lunch Friday.

Lobbyists disclose their expenses to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. The agency, informally known as the state ethics commission, has been embroiled for years in controversy surrounding allegations by former employees that commissioners scuttled an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign and most recently fired its staff attorney after a Capitol police officer said he smelled alcohol on her breath.

Late last year, Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association drafted a letter to the commission asking for clarification on numerous points in the new law, but then withdrew the letter. Instead, Capitol lobbyists are interpreting the new law on the fly, sometimes with the help of political consultants.

The Political Law Group, led by prominent Republican lawyer Doug Chalmers, distributed a briefing paper to clients in December breaking down the do’s and don’ts of the new law. On sporting tickets, the paper advised public officials to just say no.

“This is an area which will likely get a great deal of attention from the media,” Chalmers and his associates wrote. “Everyone will be looking to see if a public official improperly accepts a free ticket to a Braves game. So don’t do it.”

Chalmers said the best course this session is to play it safe.

“We have typically advised our clients to take a more conservative route,” he said. “Any type of ethics reform legislation … always leaves room for interpretation and leaves a great deal of discretion in the hands of the regulatory agency that enforces it.”

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