Whether it’s state Rep. John Carson (R-east Cobb) receiving a $200 Georgia Chamber of Commerce dinner paid for by a lobbyist with the University System of Georgia or a lobbyist with the Home Depot buying state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) a $100 ticket to the Georgia Chamber Eggs and Issues breakfast, lobbyists must report the money they spend on lawmakers to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.
A review of the commission’s website shows gifts in January ranging from Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) receiving $72 from a lobbyist with GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group for “snacks for office staff” to state Sen. Judson Hill (R-east Cobb) getting two tickets for a Falcons game worth $328 from Frank Poe, a lobbyist with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.
Hill pointed out that he chairs the state-owned World Congress Center/Ga Dome Overview Committee.
“The events at the Dome and Congress Center annually bring billions of dollars in revenue to metro Atlanta,” Hill said. “Every other year or two I visit the facility during an event in my role as chairman. This year I was offered to attend a game and actually did not.”
Lobbyists target lawmakers with influence. State Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-east Cobb), who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, received a breakfast paid for by the Georgia Biomedical Partnership for $15 and a lunch from the Georgia Hospital Association worth $14.63. Similarly, state Rep. Don Parsons (R-east Cobb), who chairs the Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, received a $49.14 dinner from a Charter Communications’ lobbyist, a $39.69 dinner from Cable Television Association of Georgia and a $146 dinner from AGL Resources.
Dr. Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said lunches and small gifts are acceptable to most people.
“It’s the larger items that generate the questions over ethics,” Swint said. “Georgia currently has no limit at all on what lobbyists may spend on public officials, which to many people creates an environment open to the influence of money and gifts. It also puts Georgia behind many neighboring southern states, including Tennessee and Alabama, that do have limits on how much lobbyists can spend.”
Presently, a bill has been introduced that would place a $100 cap on lobbyist expenditures for legislators, with an exception of a $500 limit for travel and related expenses associated with speaking engagements and conferences and an exception allowed for expenses associated with events for which all members of the General Assembly are invited, Swint said. House Bill 798 would also expand lobbyist expenditure reporting requirements by including expenditures for family members of public employees.
“This seems to me to be a reasonable change, and one that would boost citizens’ confidence in Georgia government,” Swint said. “Goodness knows Georgia has had its share of high-profile, lobbyist-related ethics problems and scandals over the years, and yet the leadership of the House and Senate steadfastly refuse to consider limits on gifts. I’d say this puts them out of touch with the average Georgian.”
Lobbyists didn’t spend any money on state Reps. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), Terry Johnson (D-Marietta), Judy Manning (R-Marietta) and David Wilkerson (D-Austell) in January, according to the Commission’s website.
To see what lobbyists are spending on an elected official, visit ethics.ga.gov, click on “search reports and records,” select “lobbyist reports,” click on “by expenditures,” and type in the name of the elected official in the marked box.