ATLANTA -- True to form, the soft drink industry was ready to wine and dine Georgia lawmakers when they convened in January. And within the first few weeks, a bottle-deposit bill the industry opposed was killed.
Cause and effect? Yes, says the bill's sponsor. No, says the chairman of the subcommittee that sealed the bill's fate.
The industry's spending on legislators in January included $16,000 for a reception paid for by the Georgia Soft Drink Association and luncheons for House and Senate leaders for which The Coca-Cola Co. kicked in $5,780.
The soft drink association also helped to pay for an after-hours hospitality room for Georgia legislators at a downtown hotel, according to disclosure reports filed with the State Ethics Commission.
The day after the Soft Drink Association's reception, which has been an annual event for years, a Senate subcommittee unanimously rejected Sen. Donzella James' bill to impose a 10-cent deposit on glass, metal or plastic bottles to encourage recycling.
The College Park Democrat said she blames the bill's defeat on the cozy relationship legislators have developed during many years with an industry that stocks every legislator's office -- except hers -- with soft drinks.
"Many legislators told me they couldn't support my bill because Coke has been good to us in the Legislature and has been good to their church or their organization," she said.
Sen. Eddie Madden, D-Elberton, chairman of the subcommittee, said the soft drink industry has no greater influence with him than the average citizen.
The wining and dining gives the industry "an opportunity to discuss their issues, but I don't think it influences us at all," he said.
Another big dinner in January was hosted by the insurance lobby for the legislators who pass judgment on bills affecting that industry.
Members of the House and Senate insurance committees were treated to cocktails and dinner at Trader Vic's by lobbyists for State Farm Insurance, the American Insurance Association, MAG Mutual Insurance Co., the Independent Insurance Agents of Georgia and others.
"It is a tradition," said Sen. Steve Langford, D-LaGrange, the Senate insurance committee chairman. "We had six shrimp and a piece of beef about this big around," he said, making a circle with his thumb and a finger.
No legislation was discussed, he said, adding, "Believe me, there are a whole lot other things I'd rather do."
But Mr. Langford, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he saw nothing wrong with lobbyists treating legislative committees to dinner and said he knows no one whose vote would be influenced by it.
"If we had a list of 100 things that needed to be changed in politics, this is way down the list," he said. "Ethics -- you've either got 'em or you don't."
Lobbyists spent at least $8,300 during the month renting and stocking at least three hospitality suites at downtown hotels.
The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Georgia spent nearly $3,000 on drinks for hospitality rooms. Others sharing in the costs of hospitality rooms included the Community Bankers Association, Georgia Power Co., BellSouth, AT&T and the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association.
While the Legislature is in session -- usually January through March -- lobbyists are required to submit monthly reports of what they spend on lawmakers. They also must submit a mid-year and year-end report.
The commission was unable to furnish a figure for total spending by lobbyists on legislators in January because it doesn't total the reports until it is sure it has received most of them.
Jeff Ledford, the commission's compliance officer, said lobbyists regularly miss deadlines as a result of a court ruling two years ago that left the commissioner powerless to impose fines for late filings.
Some of the big spenders in January as lobbyists pulled out their wallets to wine and dine Georgia legislators:
Source: Reports filed with the State Ethics Commission
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