House GOP raising money from lobbyists at George Strait concert during session

State House Speaker David Ralston and other Republicans could benefit from the money the House Republican Trust collects at a fundraising concert by George Strait and Eric Church that's set for Nov. 5, two days into a special legislative session to redraw the state's legislative and congressional districts. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
State House Speaker David Ralston and other Republicans could benefit from the money the House Republican Trust collects at a fundraising concert by George Strait and Eric Church that's set for Nov. 5, two days into a special legislative session to redraw the state's legislative and congressional districts. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Observers say new law makes in-session fundraising more likely

Georgia Republicans hope to redraw political boundaries to solidify their control of the General Assembly during next month’s special session, but they’re also aiming to boost their campaign bank accounts.

The House Republican Trust, the fundraising arm of Georgia House leaders, sent lobbyists and other potential donors invitations to a fundraiser at a George Strait concert scheduled for two days after the redistricting special session begins, according to a copy obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Individual lawmakers have been banned from raising money from Statehouse lobbyists and others during legislative sessions for more than 30 years because, besides the possibility for corruption while they are considering legislation, it just didn’t look good.

But it’s legal for political action committees such as the House Republican Trust, and critics of the state’s campaign finance laws say in-session fundraising will likely only increase with Gov. Brian Kemp’s signing of a new law in May that allows the governor, lieutenant governor and legislative leaders to create special committees that let them raise unlimited money whenever they want.

Kemp created such a leadership committee fund in July, right after the law took effect, and is already collecting big checks from special interests.

“Now we’re not even pretending, and we’re just being blatant about the pay-to-play stuff,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, one of the most vocal opponents of the new law and a candidate for attorney general. “It’s kind of crazy.”

State Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, acting chairman of the House Republican caucus, said the fundraiser was scheduled before lawmakers found out in late September when the special session would be held.

“The Georgia House Republican Caucus is working hard to protect Georgia families and businesses from Joe Biden,” Gravley said in a statement. “Part of that work is a robust fundraising effort including an event on November 5 that was scheduled long before the governor announced the date for the special legislative session.

“We are focused on expanding our majority and preserving the conservative policies that have made Georgia a great place to live, to work, and to raise a family.”

Big-money donors

The House Republican Trust gets most of its money from lobbyists and the people they represent, although lawmakers give as well.

It is one of the most successful fundraising outfits in the state. It raised $5 million during the two-year election cycle leading up to the 2020 elections, helping House Republicans greatly reduce their losses after giving up 11 seats in 2018. With the help of a Washington-based Republican group, the GOP also defeated the House’s Democratic leader.

Among the big donors to the trust over that time, according to an AJC review of records, was the state’s trial lawyers lobby, which gave $145,000; national health care giant Hospital Corporation of America, $129,000; nursing home giant PruittHealth, $90,000; and AT&T, $55,000.

Centene, the St. Louis-based company that manages one of the state’s largest health insurance programs, gave $45,000, while the state’s biggest road contractor, C.W. Matthews, gave $15,000. The filmmakers lobby, which has successfully fought efforts to make changes to the state’s extremely lucrative film tax credit, gave $10,000, while a horse racing lobbying group pushing gambling expansion at the General Assembly gave $25,000.

The redistricting session, where lawmakers will redraw political districts based on the results of the 2020 census, involves the most political thing lawmakers do. Legislators get to pick who will vote in their reelections, with the majority — the Republicans — having all the control and the minority — Democrats — trying not to take too bad of a beating.

Two decades ago, the roles were reversed, with Democrats carrying the big stick.

The session is scheduled to begin Nov. 3. The trust’s fundraiser is scheduled for Nov. 5 at a Mercedes-Benz Stadium concert featuring Strait and Eric Church.

Caption
The Georgia House Republican Trust has scheduled a fundraiser at a concert featuring George Strait and Eric Church for Nov. 5, just two days into a special legislative session.

The Georgia House Republican Trust has scheduled a fundraiser at a concert featuring George Strait and Eric Church for Nov. 5, just two days into a special legislative session.
Caption
The Georgia House Republican Trust has scheduled a fundraiser at a concert featuring George Strait and Eric Church for Nov. 5, just two days into a special legislative session.

The invitation that lobbyists received said, “Join us for a night supporting the Georgia House Republican Trust.” A check of online sites showed tickets start at about $120 for some upper-level seats but escalate quickly from there.

Any time, any amount

Before the General Assembly changed the law in 1990, lobbyists were frequently asked to donate to legislators’ campaigns while at the same time trying to persuade them to pass or kill legislation during sessions.

Some lobbyists who are still around at the Capitol don’t remember the tradition fondly, and they privately opposed the Republican lawmakers’ decision to create new “leadership committees” during the 2021 session.

PACs, such as the House Republican Trust, didn’t necessarily hold a lot of big fundraisers during a session, even though legally, they could.

The new committees were approved along partisan lines: Most Republicans voted for them. Democrats opposed them.

Kemp, who faces reelection in 2022, signed the leadership committee bill into law without any public notice in May. And with good reason.

Under state law, his campaign can raise up to $7,600 from individual donors for both the primary and general elections, and he can’t raise money during the session. There are no such limits or prohibitions on his new leadership committee. And it can coordinate its efforts with his campaign.

Kemp backers already had a political nonprofit — headed by a Capitol lobbyist — called Keeping Georgia Strong that can take unlimited funds from donors. But it is being phased out because, unlike the new leadership committees, it can’t legally coordinate its efforts with his campaign.

The governor’s political team also has good reason to want a massive political war chest. Former President Donald Trump, who has a large influence on the state’s Republican base, has kept up his attacks against Kemp for not doing more to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results in his favor.

So far, Kemp’s only Republican opponent in 2022 is a long shot, former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, who has trumpeted his support of the former president but so far has not received his official blessing.

If Kemp, as expected, gets past the primary, he may face a rematch with his 2018 general election opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, who set fundraising records that year and whose voting rights group, Fair Fight, has raised more than $100 million since then.

Kemp reported in July that his reelection campaign had raised about $12 million, the highest amount ever by an incumbent seeking reelection with a year and a half to go before the next election. Many of those who donated — businesses and individuals with interest in legislation and funding — will also likely be giving to his new leadership committee.

How much that committee raises in the second half of 2021 leading up to the start of the 2022 General Assembly session won’t be known until January.

The leadership committee gives Kemp a major head start on fundraising. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee can set up a similar committee, but not until after next year’s primary in late May. Still, Republicans say if it’s Abrams — with her national following — she won’t have any problem playing catch-up.

Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist, wasn’t surprised by news of the GOP’s special session fundraiser. And Herring said he expects to see more of it in future sessions.

“It’s legal until somebody says it isn’t,” he said. “It just seems like we are going to see more and more of this stuff. This is only going to accelerate.”

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