Lobbyists spend close to $1 million during session

ATLANTA - It was a year of tough budget cuts at the Capitol this year. So some lawmakers early this month blew off steam with a little Wrestlemania, courtesy of a couple well-connected lobbyists.

The more than $3,000 worth of wrestling tickets that changed hands were just a fraction of the nearly $1 million that lobbyists shelled out for meals, drinks, tickets and gifts for legislators and bureaucrats since Jan. 1, according to a review of records by The Associated Press. Not surprisingly, leaders of the 236-member General Assembly were targeted by lobbyists trying to influence hundreds of bills, from a failed tax overhaul to proposals dealing with Sunday alcohol sales and immigration.

In the House, Speaker David Ralston appeared to be the biggest recipient of lobbyist largesse. Reports show that Ralston accepted some $5,425 in lobbyist spending in 2011. Fifty-two lobbyists bought Ralston and his family 31 meals since Jan. 1. During the course of the 40-day session, the Blue Ridge Republican also accepted tickets to the Masters golf tournament and Falcons playoff tickets, as well as tickets to a Braves game.

Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour was among the top draws in the Senate. Balfour alone raked in $898 worth of wrestling tickets along with lobbyist-funded tickets to Falcons, Braves and Thrashers games worth just under $2,000. Lobbyists also reported buying dozens of meals for the Snellville Republican, a Waffle House executive who heads the committee that determines which bills make it to the floor.

Ralston, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Balfour did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Majority Chip Rogers was also in demand. Thirty-nine lobbyists bought the Woodstock Republican more than 30 meals and snacks at such restaurants as New York Prime and BLT. They also reported providing Rogers with tickets to Falcons games, as well as two bottles of wine. But Rogers told the AP he reimbursed lobbyists for the Falcons tickets, worth $1,634.

A coalition of groups pushed this year to place a cap of $100 on individual lobbyist gifts, but the proposal went nowhere.

Debbie Dooley, state coordinator of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots - part of that coalition - called the spending deeply concerning.

"When you have lobbyists spending that much money on gifts for members of the Legislature, just how can the average voter have faith in the legislative process?" Dooley asked.

Ralston and other Republicans have said the state's ethics laws provide transparency so voters can decide for themselves whether the spending is appropriate.

The biggest single lobbying expense this session was the $84,400 the Savannah Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau spent on the annual Savannah Chatham Day seafood festival, always a big annual draw at the Capitol. Savannah officials are seeking funds to deepen their port to accommodate larger cargo ships and secured $32 million in bonding for the effort this year in the state budget.

Among the most popular gifts, though, were tickets to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta.

Mo Thrash, lobbying for the Georgia Communities for Growth - a coalition of city, county and arts organizations - provided Ralston with a $50 Masters ticket. State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, scored badges, meals and lodging for the Augusta golf tournament worth $990 from William Carver, representing the Atlanta law firm Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover. Thomas Stanton of AT&T provided two Masters badges each to state Sen. Hardie Davis and state Rep. Quincy Murphy.

Among the other large expenses this session:

- In March, Arthur "Skin" Edge of the prominent lobbying firm GeorgiaLink shelled out $6,239 for clothing, equipment and recreation packages for Georgia Golf Day.

- The law firm Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover in February lavished more than $16,000 for a pig roast for members of the General Assembly, statewide elected officials and the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Overall, lobbyist spending was down slightly this session. Lobbyists poured $997,508 into entertaining legislators and other state officials from Jan. 1 until the session wrapped up April 14, according to the AP review. In 2010, lobbyists spent $1.13 million, and they spent $1.05 million in 2009. However, the 2010 session stretched to the end of April.

Still, state Capitol veterans said the sluggish economy and a new $300 lobbyist registration worked to keep lobbying activity at slightly lower levels. In fact, the fee appeared to keep some from registering at all. According to the state panel that oversees lobbyists, 1,474 lobbyists registered in 2011 compared with 1,852 in 2010 and 1,806 in 2009. More lobbyists could still register with the state as the year goes on, but most do so at the beginning of the year when lawmakers are in session.

Mark Woodall, a Sierra Club volunteer, had registered in the past but declined this year. The $300 fee would have come out of his pocket, he said.

"The wine and the women are more effective (with lawmakers) than our Sierra Club calendars anyway," Woodall quipped.

Lobbyists like Sara Totonchi, head of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said they noticed fewer people at the Capitol, too.

"Our side of the hallway was more empty than I've ever seen in my 12 years down there," Totonchi said.

Still, high-impact legislation drew a fair amount of interest from lobbyists.

Financing the Wrestlemania tickets were lobbyists for the Georgia World Congress Center and Comcast. The cable provider was deeply interested in a tax overhaul that would have slapped a tax on cable TV bills. The bill died.

Georgia Power was again a big spender this year. So was the Outdoor Advertising Association, which successfully fought to get legislation passed to allow billboard owners to clear trees that block their signs. And the Georgia Food Industry Association and The Georgia Association of Convenience Store Owners spent thousands of dollars providing food to the House and Senate every day legislators were in session. They succeeded in passing a bill that allows local votes on Sunday alcohol sales.

William Perry, head of the watchdog Common Cause Georgia, cited a bill passed that allows public utility employees to donate to political campaigns as an example of lobbyists' interests. The bill passed with little opposition, even though arguments in favor of it were weak, he said. Some of those utilities - state-regulated Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light - are among the biggest spenders at the Capitol.

"The bill was about expanding the trough of special interest money from which hungry politicians can feed," Perry said.

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