ATLANTA — Lobbyists spent almost $10,000 a day on gifts for Georgia lawmakers during the legislative session, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on Sunday.
The analysis shows lobbyists spent $866,747 on gifts for lawmakers between Jan. 1 and March 31 — an average of $9,525 per day. It included more than $17,000 in free sports and events tickets, dinners that cost as much as $245 apiece and golf outings.
The expenditures came as a statewide coalition called the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform urged legislators to limit lobbyists’ gifts to $100 per event. The measure never emerged from committee during the 40-day session.
But there are signs the lobbyist culture is changing. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s office told the newspaper on Friday he plans to study the issue of lobbying later this year. And Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers this year quietly decided not to accept any gifts from lobbyists.
It’s hard to connect a lobbyist’s spending with a development in the Legislature, but state ethics reports make it easier to determine high levels of activity from lobbyists.
State Rep. Mickey Channell, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, went to dozens of dinners with lobbyists representing hospitals, auto dealers, utilities and retailers during the first three months of the year. He was particularly popular because he was the sponsor of a House bill that called for a wide-ranging update to the state’s tax structure.
Channell told the newspaper the dinners were “perfectly legal” and a part of doing business at the statehouse.
“The bottom line is, frankly, it extends the legislative day for me,” he told the newspaper. “I go to work early, and most often times go out to eat with this group or that group.”
It applied even to a Valentine’s Day dinner for Channell and his wife Carolyn. Lobbyists for the Georgia Hospital Association and Georgia Power reported spending a total of $236.96 for the couple’s dinner that evening.
Rogers, meanwhile, accepted more than $10,000 in gifts from lobbyists in 2011. But this year he said he wanted to go back to his Woodstock district with a zero on his lobbyist balance sheet, so he gave everything back.
“I’m not trying to show up anybody. I’m not even trying to make this an issue,” he said.
He said the culture at the statehouse is one in which legislators often receive gifts they never requested — or even wanted.
“I spent considerable amounts of money paying people for things I never asked for,” Rogers said. “The problem is you don’t know who to go to, to tell them you are not taking it.”
Cagle, meanwhile, is planning to name a special Senate committee at the end of the summer to study lobbyist spending and develop recommendations for 2013.
“As he has done throughout his career, the lieutenant governor will continue to advocate for more transparency for all elected officials in an effort to preserve the public’s trust,” said Cagle spokesman Ben Fry.
That could be welcome news for the groups pushing for reform, which include Common Cause Georgia, the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and Georgia Watch.
Debbie Dooley of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots said lawmakers could get more serious about changing the way they deal with lobbyists if they “feel the pain of primary opposition.”
“I think it absolutely will be an issue,” she told the newspaper. “I’m already hearing from people in different parts of the state interested in running in the primary against some of the incumbents.”