Tickets, meals among lobbyists' splurges

Forty-two Falcons tickets. Two seats at a Jeff Foxworthy concert. Four hundred and thirty-five dinners and one mobile phone charger.


Those items are among the more than $250,000 lobbyists spent on members of the General Assembly and other elected officials in January, according to reports filed with the State Ethics Commission.

Under new ethics laws adopted last year, lobbyists must now disclose every two weeks during the legislative session how they are spending money to influence public policy. The reports from the first two filings in January show business interests -- from check cashing to Coca-Cola -- accounted for 10 percent of all spending, but that nearly a third came from government entities or local organizations such as the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, the Georgia Municipal Association and chambers of commerce.

An analysis of those records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also shows that the lawmakers receiving the most gifts, dinners and tickets are the leaders in the House and Senate most responsible for shaping legislation. At the top of that list is House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who received $2,747 in gifts in January, and Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who accepted $2,230 in dinners, tickets and other items. Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald was third, having received more than $1,500 in lodging and food.

Lobbyists in January entertained lawmakers at restaurants such as BLT Steak in Atlanta, where a 14-ounce ribeye costs $36, and French American Brasserie, where the coq au vin costs $23. But they also bought legislators $4 sandwiches from cafeterias around the Capitol, paid for copies of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution or delivered snacks to lawmakers' office staff.

Lobbyists watch who is in power, who has gained or lost power. Rep. Amy Carter, R-Valdosta, recently switched parties and also was named one of Gov. Nathan Deal's floor leaders in the House. In January, lobbyists spent more than $430 on her. While Carter said it does not seem like she is suddenly more popular with lobbyists since she gained a leadership role, data suggest otherwise. In January 2010, when she was still a Democrat, lobbyists spent only $145 on Carter.

But, sometimes, lobbyists are simply maintaining relationships, no matter the rise and fall of a particular lawmaker. Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, was until last month chairman of the powerful budget-writing Appropriations Committee. He said his interaction with lobbyists has not changed now that he is no longer in a leadership role.

"Most of them are friends anyway," Harbin said of the lobbyists he interacts with. In January of this year, Harbin accepted more than $730 in gifts from lobbyists -- all but $76 after he lost his chairmanship. In January 2010, lobbyists spent $520 on Harbin.