Summertime means lobbyist-paid travel for Georgia officials

Story highlights:

  • From May through August, lobbyists reported spending more than $100,000 on elected officials and state employees at meetings in places such as Seattle, New York and the Florida coast, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis. Actual spending, however, was likely much higher.
  • The biggest total spender was the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which reported more than $15,000 in direct spending on lawmakers. The Chamber's annual Governmental Affairs Conference on St. Simons Island produced more than $25,000 in lobbyist spending overall.
  • Legislators defend these meetings as "educational," saying they gain contacts who can offer insight on the impact legislation may have.
  • An ethics expert, however, says the spending means "certain groups have more access than others" to state officials.

What did you do for your summer vacation? If you are an elected official in Georgia, you might have enjoyed free trips to Seattle, New York or New Orleans, multiple excursions to St. Simons Island or the Florida coast, all compliments of campaign donors or special-interest lobbyists.

It’s a familiar cycle: The weather heats up and most trade associations and special-interest groups host annual conferences at swank resorts and invite lawmakers and other officials to hobnob, learn about the group’s pet issues and maybe play a little golf.

The money is not spent in a vacuum — what lobbyists and lawmakers discuss over cocktails in the summer often becomes legislation the following winter.

From May through August lobbyists reported spending more than $100,000 on elected officials and state employees at dozens of out-of-town meetings, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of records lobbyists filed with the state ethics commission.

The actual spending, however, is likely much higher. Many lobbyists do not provide complete details of their spending. For example, Lobbyist X reports buying Lawmaker Y dinner, but he doesn’t reveal that the dinner was at the Ritz-Carlton on Florida’s Amelia Island while both the lobbyist and lawmaker were there for Association Z’s annual conference.

The AJC examined every reported lobbyist expenditure to try to determine which were during out-of-town excursions. To continue the example: If that dinner Lobbyist X bought Lawmaker Y came on the same day that another lobbyist reported paying for the lawmaker’s hotel room in Savannah, the newspaper counted it as part of a summer trip.

Also, some state-based associations have yet to report their spending for annual meetings, even if the conferences took place from May through August. In recent years, some lobbyists haven’t reported what they spent on conventions or haven’t reported it until pressed by the AJC.

Rules eased for ‘educational’ opportunities

The biggest total spender was the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which reported more than $15,000 in direct spending on lawmakers, and the Chamber’s annual Governmental Affairs Conference in early June on St. Simons Island produced more than $25,000 in lobbyist spending overall.

When Georgia hosted the Southern Legislative Conference in July, lobbyists spent an additional $11,000 on lawmakers in Savannah. A trip to Seattle in August for the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures produced an additional $5,000 in spending.

The $75 cap on lobbyist spending on lawmakers does not apply for these trips. State ethics laws allow lobbyists to spend freely on lawmakers and other officials while attending conferences or other “educational” opportunities.

And they are educational, said state Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville. Lobbyists reported they spent more than $3,000 on Harrell this summer. The vice chairman of both the Regulated Industries and Rules committees, Harrell is an up-and-comer and a key voice on legislation near and dear to many professional groups.

“We hear from advocates during (the legislative) session, but at these conventions, seminars, meetings we actually hear from the men and women working day to day in the various industries our legislation impacts,” Harrell said. “Again, I am fortunate to serve on key committees addressing issues that impact literally millions of Georgians.”

Harrell said he benefits from each meeting.

“I always gain new sources of information and key contacts, so that as related issues arise in future years, I know someone to call to get a different perspective or greater insight into the true impact of a measure,” he said.

Georgia Chamber spokeswoman Keisha Hines said her organization regularly invites 30 to 40 lawmakers from each party to its spring conference.

“While the focus of this conference is educational in nature, we also use this as an opportunity to accomplish several things,” she said.

Those things include a free exchange of ideas and information and panels on various issues facing Georgia businesses.

The conference, Hines said, “also allows legislators and business leaders to continue dialogue of how we continue to work together to ensure we are consistently improving the quality of life for Georgians.”

‘Them that’s got, they gets’

The Chamber’s ability to pay for a conference at the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort on St. Simons, and to attract top lawmakers, gives it a unique advantage at the Gold Dome. An advantage less-well-funded advocacy groups don’t share, and that raises questions, said Robert Smith, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences at Savannah State University.

“And when citizens at-large or less-well-off interests do not have the same ability to offer access, information or specialized information to these officials, it does raise even more questions about why certain groups have more access than others in the arena of public access and representation,” said Smith, an expert in ethics in government. “Lobbying or the ability to influence remains an important ingredient in the political and legislative process, but issues about a level playing field for all involved in the public policy debate must be considered.”

Smith said it erodes the public’s trust in government when officials “have been subject to, or have allowed themselves to be subject to, special treatment or influence they might not otherwise be subject to in the fulfillment of their representative, fiduciary or administrative responsibilities.”

Veteran environmental lobbyist Neill Herring was more succinct.

“The ethics issue here was best summarized by Billie Holiday when she sang, ‘Them that’s got, they gets, them that’s not, they lose, so the Bible says, and it’s still the rule,’” Herring said.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the Legislature’s longest-serving member, said both the NCSL meeting in Seattle and the SLC meeting in Savannah offered tremendous opportunities for lawmakers.

They allow “legislators to engage in innovative policy discussions,” Smyre said. “It makes for a better legislative process. If you utilize the tools they employ, it can help you through various issues.”

Smyre said that when he helped shepherd the $1 billion transportation bill through this year’s legislative session, he used tools and ideas he learned at previous conferences. He also “bounced ideas” off staff from both organizations.

“When I’m working on various issues,” he said, “there is an abundance of knowledge there.”