Lobbyists spent less on lawmakers this COVID session, but nobody went home hungry

Committee dinners and big events such as the Wild Hog Supper on the eve of the legislative session's opening are often among the biggest expenses for lobbyists at the Georgia General Assembly. But this year, they were either called off or cut way back. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Committee dinners and big events such as the Wild Hog Supper on the eve of the legislative session's opening are often among the biggest expenses for lobbyists at the Georgia General Assembly. But this year, they were either called off or cut way back. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

On the day the Georgia House gave final passage to a bill that would ban volunteers from providing food and water to people waiting in line to vote, Statehouse lobbyists spent almost $8,400 feeding lawmakers, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of ethics reports.

It was almost double that on the final day of the 2021 legislative session, March 31, when dozens of lobbyists chipped in about $16,000 for food and drinks for lawmakers as they worked until midnight passing bills at a sometimes frantic pace.

While those numbers might sound big, an AJC review of reports filed with the state ethics commission showed less money was spent by lobbyists during the 2021 session — dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and voting debate — than in any recent year. By a lot.

The biggest reported lobbyist spender wasn’t some industry looking for yet another tax break or health care companies pushing for extra money in the budget. It was the Black Voters Matter Fund, which reported spending almost $42,000 on advertisements opposing the election bills Republicans pushed in response to Donald Trump’s false claims that he won reelection in the presidential contest and his conspiracy theories about how the vote was rigged.

Overall, including the newspaper ads, those who registered to lobby in Georgia spent a little more than $335,000 during the 2021 session. That’s just over half as much as lobbyists spent in 2019, the session before COVID-19 hit. It’s also well below previous years.

Lobbyists’ wining and dining of lawmakers during the legislative session has been going on for decades. They might take out an individual lawmaker or a group of legislators or an entire committee. Such committee dinners — which are usually at Atlanta fine-dining establishments — are as much a part of each session as the final Sine Die gavel that ends each three-month lawmaking extravaganza.

But COVID-19 brought some changes. Numerous lawmakers — and lobbyists — either got the virus before the session or during it. Masks were required in the chambers, and the rope line — where lobbyists traditionally stand two or three deep waiting to buttonhole lawmakers as they exit the House and Senate — was dispensed with in the interest of health.

Two of the most costly expenses each year — the big events such as the Wild Hog Supper the night before the start of the session and committee dinners — were either called off or cut way back in 2021.

The AJC reported earlier this year that lobbyists were taking a different approach to their jobs this session because of the pandemic.

Trip Martin, a 38-year lobbying veteran of the Capitol whose firm spent about $10,000 on food and drinks — among the highest of any group this session — said he missed some of the personal interaction with lawmakers.

“I am a face-to-face, eye-to-eye kind of guy,” Martin said. “I like to see people’s expressions.”

When asked whether he was worried about wining and dining in the time of the coronavirus, he said: “Hell yes, I got my shots. But I am still concerned.”

On the day the voting bill won final passage and was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, lobbyists paid for meals for members of both parties, but most of the big spending was on Republicans.

The law pushed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats limits where drop boxes can be located and when they are available, adds ID requirements for those wanting to vote absentee, prohibits anyone from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot application forms, requires voters to request absentee ballots at least 11 days before elections day, and bans volunteers from feeding or giving drinks to people in line. Several lawsuits have been filed against it.

Mercer University — which gets state funding — spent $900 on breakfast for the House Republican Caucus on the day of the House vote, according to lobbyist reports. The trial lawyers lobby reported spending $345 on lunch for the House Republican leadership. Several lobbyists, including those representing the Realtors and Piedmont Healthcare, reported spending about $2,000 on a dinner for the Republican whips, who help manage the party’s legislative program on the House and Senate floors.

Overall for the session, the biggest spenders, according to the AJC’s review, were the Beverage Association, Realtors and the trial lawyers lobby, groups that are traditionally in the top 10, particularly for spending on key committees or on House and Senate leadership.

The leading individual spender was Kevin Perry of the Georgia Beverage Association, at $15,549, up a bit from 2019. His biggest listed expenses were a $3,894 lunch for the Georgia Senate, a $3,519 lunch for the House Republican Caucus and a $3,293 lunch for spouses of lawmakers a few days before Valentine’s Day. The Beverage Association represents Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and the expenditures were made well before Coca-Cola’s CEO angered Republican lawmakers by calling their new voting law “unacceptable.”

Second on the list was Scott Palmer MacGregor, who represents, among others, the Augusta Metro Chamber. Most of the $7,600 he listed spending for the session went toward Masters Tournament hats for Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers.

Lawmakers said earlier this year that as more Georgians get vaccinated, the dinners and other events are likely to return. The first test of that will come this fall, when the General Assembly meets to redraw district lines for state lawmakers and congressional seats. But the 2022 session, when more business interests will be seeking to push or kill legislation, will likely be a better indicator of whether the pandemic slowdown was an aberration.

Big spenders at Capitol

Top business association/groups and individual lobbyist spenders during the 2021 legislative session, according to lobbyist disclosure reports:


Georgia Beverage Association — $15,862

Georgia Association of Realtors — $14,777

Georgia Trial Lawyers Association — $11,100

Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce — $7,227

Georgia Electric Membership Corp. — $7,137

Georgia Automobile Dealers Association — $6,399

Georgia Food Bank Association — $6,090

Individual lobbyists

Kevin Perry, Georgia Beverage Association — $15,549

Scott Palmer MacGregor, various clients — $7,621

Trip Martin, various clients — $6,581

Danah Craft, Georgia Food Bank Association — $6,090

Mary Caroline McLean, Georgia Trial Lawyers Association — $5,983

CREDIT: Isaac Sabetai