Capitol lobbyists make sure redistricting lawmakers are well-fed

Members of the Georgia Senate and House committees responsible for redistricting listen to comments from the public about drawing the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts during a visit to the Savannah area in August. The committees' members traveled across the state this past summer collecting public input on the redistricting process, and lobbyists made sure they were well-fed, picking up the tab for lunches and dinners, plus drinks. MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com
Caption
Members of the Georgia Senate and House committees responsible for redistricting listen to comments from the public about drawing the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts during a visit to the Savannah area in August. The committees' members traveled across the state this past summer collecting public input on the redistricting process, and lobbyists made sure they were well-fed, picking up the tab for lunches and dinners, plus drinks. MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com

Credit: MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com

Credit: MARK NIESSE / mark.niesse@ajc.com

Georgia lawmakers traveled the state this summer to get public feedback on redistricting — the once-every-decade reworking of legislative and congressional voting lines following the census.

Statehouse lobbyists made sure they didn’t have to do so on an empty stomach.

Capitol lobbyists spent at least $6,300 feeding members of the committees lunch and dinner, and providing them drinks during their tour of the state, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of reports filed with the state ethics commission.

A check of campaign reports filed with the same agency showed some of those lobbyists and their companies also happen to be major donors to the majority Republican House and Senate political action committees.

It’s not unusual for Statehouse lobbyists to be busy picking up the tab over the summer break between legislative sessions.

The AJC recently reported that lobbyists spent more than $100,000 this summer hosting lawmakers at resort conferences put on by the business associations that the lobbyists represent.

Study committees — which usually focus on very specific issues that may be addressed by the General Assembly in the next session — typically hold meetings over the summer and fall.

And lobbyists for groups with an interest in those issues typically foot the bill for meals. For example, the Georgia Municipal Association — which represents cities — recently paid for lunch for a study committee looking at annexation and cityhood issues. The GMA has issues with the idea of Buckhead splitting off from Atlanta, or any de-annexations for that matter. Republicans are expected to push the Buckhead de-annexation bill hard during the 2022 election-year session.

The redistricting committees were sent out across the state to gather public comment about how the General Assembly should handle the most political thing they do — essentially choose their own voters by drawing district boundaries. The Republican majority in the House and Senate is expected to use the redrawing of lines to strengthen its hand, the same way Democrats did for the 150 years they controlled the General Assembly before the chambers flipped in the early 2000s.

The House and Senate committees wound up receiving some criticism when — after the summer of traveling the state — they essentially adopted the same rules for redistricting that they used in 2011.

The AJC review found that along the way, more than a dozen Capitol lobbyists kept them well fed.

The biggest individual spender was William Usry, who represents some South Georgia chambers of commerce and cities, Dish Network, MGM Resorts, the Economic Developers Association, Emory University and title-pawn giant TItlemax. Usry reported spending about $1,500 during a South Georgia swing of the redistricting committees in late July.

A group of six lobbyists representing a wide array of industries — including cable TV, nursing homes, gas companies and insurers — reported spending just under $2,000 for a committee dinner when lawmakers met in Athens in early July.

Some of the lobbyists and their clients are also big donors to Republican causes, such as the House Republican Trust and Senate GOP caucus political action committee, which raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to reelect its members.

For instance, Clay Huckaby and his firm and family have donated to both caucus PACs and $36,000 to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaigns. Huckaby, one of the sponsors of the Athens dinner, also headed a nonprofit that collected money from special interests to promote the governor’s agenda.

The Georgia Health Care Association — another one of the sponsors of the Athens dinner — has contributed $35,000 to the two caucus PACs this election cycle, plus $12,000 to Kemp’s reelection campaign, according to campaign reports. The GHCA, the nursing home lobby, has also given $5,000 to the state Democratic Party in that time.

The association recently made headlines when it asked the state for $347 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to make up for losses in the industry during the pandemic. Kemp will ultimately decide who receives the relief money after hearing recommendations from committees made up partly of legislators.

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