Charter school lobbyists spend thousands in debate

Tab grows as gridlock holds up amendment

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ATLANTA — Lobbyists on both sides of the charter school debate have spent thousands trying to woo Republican and Democratic lawmakers, shelling out for a documentary film screening, coffee and pricey meals, some topping $100 a person.

The tab is growing as a constitutional amendment allowing the state to create and fund charter schools is hanging in limbo in the Senate. The state Supreme Court outlawed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission in a May ruling, and it cannot restart its work unless the amendment is approved.

The bill has passed the House. If it passes the Senate with the needed two-thirds majority, it would go on the November ballot for voters to decide.

“If you don’t have lobbyists in today’s legislative world in Georgia, then you really can’t get anything done because everybody uses the service of lobbyists,” said Tony Roberts, the head of the Georgia Charter Schools Asso­cia­tion, which has paid for at least three lobbyists this legislative session to help get the constitutional amendment passed.

An Associated Press analysis of the bi-monthly reports lobbyists submit to the state ethics commission shows charter school supporters have spent at least $7,800 since January on everything from breakfast to framed photos for lawmakers. On the other side of the debate, groups representing teachers, school administrators, school boards and public school parents have spent at least $2,400 on lunch and coffee for lawmakers.

These expenses are only the tip of the iceberg because organizations don’t have to report lobbyist salaries, travel expenses for parents and students who visit the Capitol or the cost of printed materials handed out to lawmakers.

The biggest single expense was by the charter schools association for a reception and screening of the pro-charter documentary Waiting for “Superman” for lawmakers and others Jan. 17. The event bill topped $3,400.

Often lawmakers’ offices will contact lobbyists asking for them to pay for a lunch or dinner. The lobbyists involved in the charter schools debate frequently represent multiple clients on a laundry list of issues, not just education, so expenses for a meal can be split among several organizations.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents more than 82,000 educators statewide, spent $872 on lunch for lawmakers during a day of events put on by the teacher organization. The Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association, along with two other noneducation organizations, split the cost of coffee for lawmakers throughout the session – about $800 per group.

Both groups have lobbied against the constitutional amendment, though they said their expenses are related to all education legislation, not just charter schools. The organizations collect dues from members – which can include money that school boards get from taxpayers – to use for their expenses.

Critics say the amendment would allow the state to siphon money from cash-strapped districts at a time when they’re facing $1 billion in cuts and lagging property tax revenue.

GOP leaders have promised no money will be taken from school districts but have not said where they will find the funding.

Radio ads targeting lawmakers opposed to the amendment have aired in Augusta and Gainesville. In Augusta, the ad – paid for by a coalition that includes the Georgia Chamb­er of Commerce, the American Federation for Chil­dren, the Georgia Charter Schools Asso­ciation and the Georgia Public Policy Foun­dation – asks listeners to call Democratic Sen. Hardie Davis and ask him to vote for the amendment.

The fight between the sides has grown increasingly bitter as Senate Democrats refuse to budge on their opposition to the measure, despite multiple back-room meetings with GOP leaders. No members of either party would discuss the meetings.

Gov. Nathan Deal has even been involved in the push to get the legislation passed.

Such lobbyist spending is nothing new in Georgia. Lobbyists line the halls of the state Capitol building, crowding around the entrance to each chamber in hopes of talking with lawmakers and provide meals, snacks, sodas and gifts for legislators throughout the session.

There are nearly 1,200 lobbyist registered with the state who have spent $630,371.62 on lawmakers so far this year.

“What adds to the erosion of public trust is when people see legislators are getting ... pictures of John Smoltz,” said William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group. “They don’t see that as educating lawmakers about the benefits of a law.”

LOBBYING EXPENSES

Lobbyists on both sides of the charter school debate have spent thousands on meals and gifts for lawmakers since January as the Legislature debates a constitutional amendment that would expand the state’s ability to create charter schools. Here are a few of those expenses:

FOR THE AMENDMENT:

• The Georgia Charter Schools Association spent $3,423 on a reception for state lawmakers during a screening of the documentary Waiting for “Superman” on Jan. 17.

• The American Federation for Children paid $75 for frames for photos of state lawmakers with former Braves pitcher John Smoltz.

• The Georgia Family Council spent $410 on lunch for the House Education Committee on Feb. 7.

• The Georgia Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $2,000 on meals for lawmakers from January to early March.

AGAINST THE AMENDMENT:

• The Georgia School Superintendents Association and the Georgia School Boards Association split $1,600 worth of coffee for state lawmakers.

• The Professional Association of Georgia Educators spent $872.77 on a lunch reception for lawmakers.

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