Spending by lobbyists declined 34% for session

Lobbyists spent a little more than $587,000 on food, entertainment and other gifts for public officials during the legislative session just ended — the same session that featured extensive debate on limiting such gifts.

Provided Gov. Nathan Deal signs House Bill 142, the resulting reforms in the legislation won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2014, but lobbyists and lawmakers spent much of the session self-correcting anyway.

Total spending for the session was down 34 percent, compared to the same period last year, and spending has fallen each month of this year. Some legislative leaders most closely involved in the debate limited their own gifts even more.

Elizabeth Poythress, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said the reduced spending shows that voters’ voices are being heard.

“I think you will see those numbers continue to drop in the next legislative session,” she said.

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The League of Women Voters is part of a coalition of groups from across the political spectrum that have agitated for restraints on lobbyist spending. Currently lobbyists are free to spend unlimited amounts on gifts to public officials as long as they report the spending.

HB 142 represents the first-ever restrictions on lobbyist gifts — assigning a $75 cap on expenditures, with significant loopholes and sometimes ambiguous language that many still are struggling to interpret.

Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, said she would have preferred a tougher bill, but she is pleased that HB 142 contains at least some restraints on lobbyists gifts.

“I think it’s long overdue that we have this ethics law that we have now,” she said. “I’m happy we have leaders who now see that we need to do our job and not be bought off.”

While spending hit its lowest mark last month, there were some notable spikes showing attempts by lobbyists to time their gifts to make the greatest impact.

This year, lobbyists spent $25,610 on Crossover Day — the final day for bills to pass at least one chamber — and the two days leading up to it.

The second spike occurred on Day 40, the end of the session, when lobbyists spent $16,680 feeding lawmakers, their spouses and Capitol staffers.

Lobbyists spent more than $1,200 on breakfast, nearly $8,000 on lunch and $4,600 on dinners for legislators and staff on the final day this year. That doesn’t count the additional $2,200 on meals, drinks and snacks that weren’t itemized by meal. It also doesn’t include the $750 spent on post-session soirees and day after lunches.

Yet, spending was down even for those traditionally big days. For example, special interests spent $32,054 last year on Day 40 goodies.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston and the six lawmakers working out a final deal on HB 142 were even more restrained than their colleagues in the gifts they chose to accept.

In March 2012, the eight men took a combined $3,501 in gifts – mostly meals – from lobbyists. This past month, while sweating the details of the lobbying legislation, the group took $1,296 – a 63 percent drop.

Ralston, for example, received $815 in dinners, lunches and snacks last March, but the speaker – who swore off of lobbyist treats after announcing last summer he would propose an outright ban on them – accepted nothing but a $30 cake on the session’s final day. It was delivered by a lobbyist who hit eight other legislative offices that day with the same tribute.

The new rules, should they take effect, will change little for professional lobbyists, said Seth Millican, a former contract lobbyist who became director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance April 1. He said real influence at the Capitol is not built around gifts.

“One of the questions I get asked the most when talking about my profession is what quality is the most important as a lobbyist,” he said. “I always reply, ‘trust.’ If a legislator doesn’t trust me, then I, nor anyone, certainly won’t earn his or her support through simply entertaining.”

The new requirements could change a lobbyist’s daily tactics, Millican said, but successful lobbyists build relationships outside the Capitol by volunteering for candidates, raising money for political parties and other activities.

Freshman Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, ran on a promise not to accept any gifts from lobbyists. He kept that promise and said he was pleased to hear that overall spending was down.

Turner said he thinks the declining gift totals represents a new way of thinking at the Capitol.

“We have an opportunity to build some trust with our constituents by simply refusing to take gifts,” he said. “That’s a simple ethics reform.”

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Year  January February March 3-month totals
2011 $307,579 $360,155 $291,507 $959,241
2012 $368,948 $301,708 $226,986 $897,641
2013 $239,518 $206,371 $141,316 $587,205

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