ATLANTA --- It was a year of tough budget cuts at the Capitol this year. So some lawmakers blew off steam with a little Wrestlemania earlier this month, 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 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. 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 he accepted about $5,425 in lobbyist spending in 2011. Fifty-two lobbyists bought Ralston and his family 31 meals since Jan. 1. During the 40-day session, the Blue Ridge Republican also accepted tickets to the Masters Tournament, Falcons playoff tickets and tickets to a Braves game.
Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour was among the top draws in the Senate. He raked in $898 worth of wrestling tickets along with lobbyist-funded tickets to Falcons, Braves and Thrashers games worth close to $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 him with tickets to Falcons games and two bottles of wine. 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, a 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?" she 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.
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 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.
- Hall, Booth, Smith and Slover spent more than $16,000 for a pig roast in February 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 fee 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.