University lobbyists spend big on state lawmakers

When former University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt coached his Bulldogs past the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in his final game Nov. 28, there was practically a full committee of state lawmakers in the stands.

The lobbyist for Georgia Tech gave free tickets to the game to a dozen state lawmakers, including the six members of the House Appropriations Committee, which allocates the university system’s budget, and Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, a Georgia Tech grad and vice chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

In all, the Georgia Tech lobbyist gave out $2,250 worth of free tickets that day to state officials, part of about $52,000 university system lobbyists spent in meals, tickets, golf games and assorted trinkets this year. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the lobbyists for Georgia Power, UPS and Home Depot spent — combined.

But while lobbyists are required to report gifts given to public officials to the state ethics commission, none of that was publicly reported because a 2013 ethics “reform” passed by the General Assembly specifically excluded government lobbyists.

That law set the first-ever limits on what lobbyists could spend on legislators and other government officials, establishing a $75 cap on individual gifts and specifically outlawing pure entertainment gifts like athletic tickets. But the law changed the way lobbyists working for universities and other state agencies were viewed, exempting them entirely from the law for the first time.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, provided much of the leadership that pushed through those reforms, including making the argument for excluding government lobbyists from the rules. While Ralston was unavailable for comment last week, his spokesman referred to Ralston’s previous comments on the topic.

“These state employees serve as an informational resource to legislators on matters pertaining to state government operations which occasionally may include meetings or site visits to public institutions,” Ralston told the AJC in 2014.

The University System of Georgia sang the same tune.

“All of our records are open and our decisions made in public. This is the case whether any of our employees register as lobbyists or not,” said system spokesman Charles Sutlive.

UGA, Tech account for most spending

University spending is public record, but university lobbyists do not file public reports with the ethics commission like other lobbyists. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got an accounting of their spending by filing an open records request.

Sutlive said universities “have a fundamentally different relationship to state officials than private entities.”

“Hosting campus visits, which includes athletics events, are an appropriate part of what we do to provide information and firsthand experiences about our institutions, programs and support of our students,” he said.

Sutlive said all of the money spent by university system lobbyists came from the foundations of the various schools “with no taxpayer dollars used.” As a result, universities with wealthier foundations appear to have a leg up on smaller schools. UGA and Georgia Tech accounted for nearly 70 cents of every dollar spent by university lobbyists in 2015.

While claiming special status, what university lobbyists do looks strikingly similar to what any other lobbyist does. They show up to the Capitol every day during the legislative session, work the same rope lines outside the chambers for lawmakers’ attention, fight for scraps out of the same state budget trough, and ply legislators with food and drink like any private sector lobbyists. But they don’t have to play by the same rules.

Still, private lobbyists are reluctant to complain too loudly.

The universities, in particular UGA and Georgia Tech, are powerful and influential. Lobbyists interviewed for this story were wary of angering the university system or its powerful backers in the General Assembly.

“Everyone should follow the law, whatever the law is,” Jet Toney, president of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association, said.

Law is vague

What the law is isn’t very clear.

The ethics commission, formally called the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, was scheduled to consider an advisory opinion earlier this month that would have made state employees who meets the definition of a lobbyist register as such and disclose their spending.

But the proposed opinion was pulled from the most recent meeting agenda over concerns from the Office of Legislative Counsel, the agency that drafts bills for lawmakers. Commission director Stefan Ritter said the opinion will be back on the commission’s agenda at its next meeting in March.

“I think the proposed opinion is a correct statement regarding the current law,” Ritter said.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said university system employees who work the Capitol to influence legislation most certainly should register and report their spending. But, Powell said, what colleges and universities really need are employees whom lawmakers can call for official business.

“Believe it or not, some of us do have to call on them for our constituents,” Powell said. “I don’t call on them because I need a football ticket. If I want to go to a ballgame I buy my own damn ticket.”

Powell did not accept any gifts from university system lobbyists this year, but he said they are major players during the legislative session.

“I watched the power of the lobbyists of the Board of Regents two years ago when we passed that 2nd Amendment bill and they lobbied like a son of a bitch,” Powell, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said.

Sweeping gun legislation passed in 2014 would have allowed licensed owners to carry firearms on to college campuses. The university system successfully fought to have that portion taken out of the bill.

“I’d rather see them not trying to over-influence legislation that’s not education related,” Powell said. “The taxpayers are paying for these folks to work diametrically opposed to legislation that should be the purview of the General Assembly.”

Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said university employees whose job it is to influence legislation certainly should register as lobbyists and report their spending.

“Take Kennesaw State (University),” he said. “I work in economic development with different individuals out there at Kennesaw State. If I have lunch with them should they have to register? If it’s their government affairs person, absolutely.”

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