Georgia lawmakers defend lobbyist dollars

Georgia lawmakers defend lobbyist dollars

July 5th, 2011 by Andy Johns in News

David Ralston, Georgia's House Speaker.

Photo by Andy Johns/Times Free Press.

Ga., State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga

By the numbers

2011 lobbyist spending (includes staff and spouse)

Senate

Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga: $11,841.15*

Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton: $912.76

House

John Meadows, R-Calhoun: $4,111.87

Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold: $1,631.75

Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta: $690.76*

Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper: $575.42

Roger Williams, R-Dalton: $548.56

Jay Neal, R-LaFayette: $543.26*

Barbara Reece, D-Menlo: $170.03

Martin Scott, R-Rossville: $78.80

Total: $21,104.36

  • Includes full share of meal for multiple legislators

Source: Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission

POLL: Should lobbyists be banned from giving money to politicians?

Falcons tickets, $130 dinners, packing supplies and trips to the circus were all expenses lobbyists used to get to know Northwest Georgia legislators during this year's legislative session.

In all, lobbyists reported spending more than $21,000 on the area's 10 lawmakers and more than $1.1 million on officials across the state.

Much of the money was concentrated on leadership, based on reports published by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, received more than any lawmaker in the Legislature. Lobbyists gave him more than $27,000 through mid-June, including a $14,000 trip to Germany. Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, took in $7,100.

The big recipient in Northwest Georgia was Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who was given $11,841 - about $4,000 more than Rogers.

Mullis, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and his staff were treated to Braves tickets, a hockey game, umbrellas, a cake and meals by airlines, railways, healthcare providers and utility companies.

Mullis by himself was treated to five meals valued at more than $100 by groups ranging from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta to the Atlanta Metro Chamber, according to the reports.

Attempts to reach Mullis were unsuccessful Friday, but Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, who received the second-most gifts in the region, defended the attention from lobbyists.

"I don't see a thing wrong with it," he said. "If you think buying me dinner or taking me to play golf is going to buy my vote, you and I need to talk, and you're not going to like the conversation."

Meadows, who recently was appointed chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, received about $4,100 during the session. He said dinners and meetings are the lobbyists' way of getting him to listen, but maintained that he also pays attention to constituents in his district.

"I don't want to say it's a way of life down there [in Atlanta], but it is," he said. "That's their way to get my ear, but my ear is available to others."

Meadows said that, in 99 percent of cases, nothing a lobbyist says or does will influence anything.

When asked about a $225 Falcons ticket reportedly purchased for him by AMB Group, he said he didn't know who bought it or what cause AMB represented. AMB stands for the Arthur M. Blank Group, the parent company for the Falcons and other enterprises run by Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank.

Blank and others NFL leaders have been trying to convince the state to build the Falcons a new stadium.

Lobbyists from insurance companies, auto dealers, Georgia Power and others spent about $1,600 on Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold.

He said many lobbyists are paid by people who are his constituents. Representatives from Ringgold Telephone and Chickamauga Telephone Co. spent about $13 on a lunch for Weldon.

At the meals, he said he rarely "talks shop" but said it is easier to appreciate other perspectives if he knows the person he's dealing with.

"They don't give me a meal and ask me to vote a certain way," he said. "If they do I would have to leave. That's inappropriate."

But ethics watchdogs say it's not about the power of a single meal.

"I do believe them when they say one dinner won't change their mind, but there's a different level of access that lobbyists have," said Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Georgia.

Her group is a member of the Georgia Alliance on Ethics Reform, which has called for $100-per-gift maximums and stronger reporting rules. The group also has called to lower the requirements to be an official lobbyist so smaller nonprofit groups can get involved more easily.

"I don't think we've found the balance yet, but it's something we're working toward," she said.

William Perry, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, said he's not opposed to lobbyists going to dinner or playing golf with lawmakers so long as it is aimed at doing business and not building a relationship to get favors.

"We just want lobbying to focus on the ideas, not the dollars," he said.

Freshman Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, said he was a little nervous about dealing with lobbyists when he first went to Atlanta, but "felt zero pressure" from any of them during his time at the Capitol.

Jasperse received $575, primarily in meals, from groups such as Verizon Wireless, Georgia Power and the Georgia Cattlemen's Association.

"The key issue is does it affect how you vote, and I really don't think it does," he said. "Bottom line is the people up here in this area want someone to represent them very conservatively. If you don't, you're out of there, and you ought to be."

Perry said he tries to remind lawmakers of the same idea. Lobbyists and legislators might be friends, he said, but the relationship may not last.

"They'll buy dinner just as quickly for the person who replaces you when you forget the people back home," he said.

Contact staff writer Andy Johns at ajohns@timesfree press.com or call 423-757-6324.