published Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Keeping tabs on lobbyists

The late Jesse M. Unruh, a Democratic stalwart who rose to fame and power as speaker of the California State Assembly in the 1960s, was found of saying that "Money is the mother's milk of politics." No one is quite sure if the phrase was original to him, but he's generally given credit for authorship. There's no doubt, however, what Unruh meant when he repeated the phrase. The political system, he liked to remind people, required regular infusions of cash at various levels to operate. That was true then and it is true now. You need not go to California for proof. Georgia, much closer to home, is a current case in point.

Lobbyists spent more than $250,000 wining, dining and otherwise entertaining members of the Georgia legislature in the first month of the 2011 session. The questions, of course, are who gets money from the lobbyists and what the lobbyists expect to get in return for their largesse.

For years, ordinary Georgians had difficulty answering those questions. No more. New ethics rules approved last year mandate that lobbyists disclose what they spend every two weeks.. The report for January contains few surprises. It is apparent, though, that the more powerful a position a legislator holds, the more likely he or she is to be the recipient of a lobbyist's spending.

Given that, it is hardly earth-shaking that House Speaker David Ralston was the top recipient of lobbyist's spending, with $2,747 in gifts in January. Next was Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who got $2,230 in assorted freebies. Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald was third on the list. He got $1,500 worth of lodging and food.

Lobbyists are familiar figures in legislative halls — in Georgia, in other state capitals and in Washington. They pay for all sorts of things in the course of the legislative session. Sometimes a lobbyist underwrites the cost of a public event. Tickets to Atlanta Falcon games, for instance, are frequently listed on lobbyists' reports. Lobbyists' also spend freely on private dinners and meetings. Why not? It provides a chance to make a point and perhaps win influence in a setting out of the public eye.

Most lobbyists and the legislators they court are honorable. There are few calls, in fact, in Georgia or elsewhere to abolish the practice of lobbying. There are ways, however, to reduce the possibility that lobbyists and their cash might prove too tempting to someone elected to do the people's business. The new monthly reporting requirement is one.

Another is to limit the amount of a lobbyist can spend. Common Cause Georgia, for example, doesn't want to eliminate lobbying, but it does suggest a $100 cap on any individual expenditure by a lobbyist. That seems fair. It would allow a lobbyist to do his or her work but reduce the chance that the money at his or her disposal could be used to corrupt the political system.

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