published Monday, November 19th, 2012

Lobbyists give away tickets, dinners to Northwest Georgia lawmakers

Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, left, speaks as Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton listens during a legislative roundtable meeting at Dalton State College.
Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, left, speaks as Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton listens during a legislative roundtable meeting at Dalton State College.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LOBBYIST GIFTS

Northwest Georgia legislators received gifts in the past year valued at the following amounts:

SENATE

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga -- $4,225

Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton -- $100.75

HOUSE

Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun -- $5,162

Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton -- $4,045

Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold -- $1,445

Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta -- $1,358

Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette -- $1,003

Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper -- $992

Rep. Barbara Reece, D-Menlo -- $45

Rep. Martin Scott, R-Rossville -- zero

Source: Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission

Northwest Georgia lawmakers received tickets to football games, rounds of golf and hundreds of dollars in dinners and trips from area lobbyists this year.

In all, the 10 lawmakers who represent the area from Rossville to Jasper, Ga., received $18,375 in lobbyist gifts from a host of groups including insurance, wholesale alcohol and power company representatives. Overall, lawmakers across the state accepted $1.2 million in gifts.

At a time when a majority of Georgians polled favored capping lobbyist gifts at $100, ethics watchdog leaders say lawmakers need to consider how the public perceives the perks legislators receive.

"I believe people that say, 'A steak dinner didn't buy my vote,'" said William Perry, executive director for Common Cause Georgia. "But the problem is, is it appropriate, gift after gift?"

In July, answering a poll question on the ballot, 87 percent of Republican voters said lobbyist gifts needed to be capped at $100, and 72 percent of Democrats indicated that unlimited gifts from lobbyists should end.

Controversy mounted after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that since 2010, lawmakers have been receiving luxury box tickets to football, pro wrestling and monster truck events in the Georgia Dome. The Georgia World Congress Center, which manages the dome, gave away the tickets to legislators on the state authority committee, which passed key legislation to smooth the way for a new $1 billion stadium proposed for the Atlanta Falcons football team.

Some local lawmakers agree the gifts should be reined in, while others say they don't believe any gift would influence their vote and don't see a problem with the current system.

Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, who received $640 in tickets to watch the University of Tennessee football team play North Carolina State at the dome, said he wasn't influenced by the gift.

"I asked for those with no expectations in return," said Neal. "I personally don't see any problem with that."

The top recipient in North Georgia was Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, who is chairman of the House Rules Committee. Meadows was given a total of $5,162 to attend conferences and other activities including a $259 golf outing from the University System of Georgia and a $327 dinner from the Georgia Forestry Association.

Meadows said he has been targeted by lobbyists since he began to chair the committee that hears every bill in the House. But in the end, he said, it doesn't mean anything.

"I try to make decisions based on facts in front of me. I don't make anybody happy," he said with a laugh.

Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who received just two dinners this year valued at $100, said he understands the public's perception that human nature is susceptible to improper influence. He said he believes the core of the issue is: "Do people fear that votes are being purchased?"

If people believe that, Bethel said he is open to limiting gifts to $100 or, even better, to eliminating them altogether. Other lawmakers, including Meadows, agree that if the public is worried about lobbyist gifts, why stop at $100?

"I really don't care," Meadows said. "I've got a lot more things to worry about than $100 gifts to legislators."

Others question the practice of companies paying for legislators' trips to conferences where they learn in depth about an issue they may later vote on.

Neal said when he attended a conference more than two years ago, he began to realize the state criminal justice system needed to be revamped. In 2011, he sponsored a bill that formed the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, paving the way for changes in how nonviolent offenders are sentenced.

Trips to conferences were the costliest items that lobbyists gave Northwest Georgia lawmakers. In June, the Georgia Industrial Loan Association spent $938 for Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, to attend its convention and for meals for three nights in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The Georgia Food Industry Association paid $1,019 for retiring Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, to attend its annual conference. The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Georgia spent $600 for Williams to attend and speak at its annual meeting, while the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association paid $657 for him to speak and attend its conference.

Meanwhile, Perry said he believes there will be multiple bills from the state house next year that will address how to limit gifts from lobbyists.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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