ATLANTA — One college football tradition in Georgia will soon disappear: Letting politicians into the stadium for free.
A new law taking effect next year bans lobbyists from giving Georgia’s politicians free college football tickets, a rite as well-established as game day beer and barbecue in the football-obsessed South. As the season kicks off, lobbyists and lawmakers are squeezing in a few more free games before the prohibition takes effect Jan. 1.
Disclosure reports show that lobbyists have given Georgia politicians nearly $1,400 in college football tickets and related entertainment since the start of the season in late August. That’s just the beginning. Last year, registered lobbyists shelled out more than $14,000 in tickets and perks at college football games, according to an Associated Press review of the spending reports.
Many lawmakers get tickets in Georgia because the Legislature controls the $6.4 billion higher education budget, including the roughly $1.9 billion that comes directly from state coffers. A free ticket probably won’t swing a vote, said William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia. However, he described the tickets as just one part of the unchecked lobbyist spending that distorted Georgia politics.
“What happens is that it creates a culture, a luxury of lifestyle for our elected officials,” Perry said.
Just having access to tickets can be a nice perk. Spending on football tickets accounted for just over 1 percent of the $1.3 million that lobbyists spent in 2012. That underestimates the value of the tickets considering most games played by the University of Georgia are sold out. Average fans cannot get inside a stadium unless they pay markups or have season tickets, which require mandatory “donations” and sitting on a waiting list.
Get elected to office, and you can go for free. UGA spent about $9,500 on tickets for officials last year. This year, it’s invited state lawmakers to an Oct. 12 game against Missouri. Tickets for that game were selling Friday from a low of $74.99 to a high of $1,127.50 on StubHub, an online ticket market.
“The current law is in effect for this football season. And we’ll abide by it,” UGA spokesman Tom Jackson said. “And the new law isn’t going to affect us until next football season. And we’ll abide by the new law.”
The practice isn’t limited to Georgia. State lawmakers can buy tickets at face value to see top-ranked Alabama play, while fans would need to make annual donations for a similar opportunity. Ethics officials scolded the University of Wisconsin in 2005 for allowing 11 state lawmakers to buy tickets to sold-out football games.
“The university should know better and shouldn’t put elected officials at risk,” Ethics Board Director Roth Judd said at the time. “It’s not good policy for the university to try to curry favor by providing perks to elected officials it doesn’t make available to ordinary citizens.”
In Georgia, even lower-ranked football programs get in on the act. Georgia State University spent $950 on Aug. 30 to host 16 lawmakers and staffers at its home opener, records show. The guests included Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer, who noted that he pays for his own tickets to UGA football games.
“I attended the season opener,” Shafer said. “The face value of my ticket was $12.”
Georgia Tech gave Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, a $50 ticket to an Aug. 31 game, according to spending reports.
Old habits die hard. Finally pressured this year into passing a bill that restricted lobbyist spending, Georgia lawmakers initially included a loophole that would have allowed colleges and universities to hand out free sports tickets. One critic called it the “championship provision,” and that provision did not become law.
There are unresolved questions. Shafer, R-Duluth, said he wants advice from Statehouse lawyers on whether employees of Georgia’s higher education system are legally considered lobbyists. If they are not lobbyists, they would not be subject to the spending rules. Private lobbyists would still be banned from giving away tickets.
Another provision allows lobbyists to pay for a public official’s registration at events related to the official’s duties. So it’s conceivable a university could try inviting lawmakers to campus for an educational tour and then offer football tickets.
Some already follow the new rules. Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, said he sent Georgia Tech a $25 check to cover tickets to an Aug. 31 game that he requested from a university lobbyist. In a discrepancy, the university reported that Cheokas paid a $50 reimbursement. Georgia Tech spokesman Matt Nagel said it was unclear what caused the reporting discrepancy.
“Yeah, I could go ahead and accept tickets. But what’s the point?” said Cheokas, vice chairman of a House subcommittee that decides the budget for higher education. “I feel like I would not be abiding by the spirit of the law.”