Originally created 01/19/99

Lobbyists give to agreeable officials

ATLANTA -- Augusta's state Rep. Robin Williams isn't the type of state lawmaker Georgia's powerful doctors lobby has to arm-twist.

He's already on their side on issues like HMO "reform," which is expected to be one of the hot topics of the 1999 session.

Nonetheless, the Medical Association of Georgia spent $9,600 last August for Mr. Williams and 15 of his General Assembly colleagues to attend its annual convention on Amelia Island, Fla.

Mr. Williams, whose trip MAG said cost $1,721.83 because family members came along, received an award from the group for, among other things, his support of managed-care reforms advocated by doctors.

"This is something we should be encouraging. This is interfacing with voters," said Mr. Williams, who attends the MAG conference every year and has sponsored so-called "patient protection" legislation in the past. "I'm a firm believer that what's good for patients is what's good for physicians."

The trip was just one of several pricey freebies lobbyists doled out before and after the election season, including some that went to outgoing Gov. Zell Miller.

Most end-of-the-year lobbyist disclosure reports had been sent in to the Ethics Commission by the time Gov. Roy Barnes last week announced a ban on state employees accepting gifts.

Mr. Barnes' executive order on gifts was aimed at more than 55,000 state employees under his control. However, it doesn't apply to elected officials, and lawmakers have generally opposed giving up freebies, arguing that an expensive dinner or a trip to speak to a special-interest group doesn't sway their vote.

Mr. Williams, for instance, noted that he spoke at this year's MAG conference, and he said banning such engagements would limit the chances lawmakers have to meet with groups and constituents to discuss important issues.

Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, who served on a panel at the MAG convention, said he saw it as an opportunity to motivate doctors to get involved in what the General Assembly is doing.

"We're trying to get those doctors to understand that the legislative process ... (demands) they be involved," Mr. Harbin said.

Critics argue the freebies give associations a foot in the door that average Georgians don't have. Attempts to reach a MAG spokesman for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

MAG supports two moves backed by the Barnes administration during the 1999 session: One would make HMOs legally liable for their medical decisions and allow patients more choice in which physicians they see; the other would separate the board that investigates doctor complaints from the Secretary of State's Office.

Mr. Barnes' health-care legislation is expected to be handled by another lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, who has been supported by MAG in the past.

MAG lobbyists weren't the biggest spenders of late 1998.

For instance, Georgia Power lobbyists spent about $14,000 last fall on dinners they held for lawmakers across the state.

The University System Board of Regents' lobbyist Tom Daniel spent more than $12,000 during the final five months of 1998.

Mr. Daniel said his lobbying tab was a little steeper than normal because of presents the system gave outgoing Gov. Zell Miller.

Mr. Miller, who left office last week, received a $2,500 yard tractor, and he and his wife Shirley each got $1,300 gift certificates for the purchase of books. The gifts were awarded at an October banquet.

The yard tractor came from members of the Board of Regents and the gift certificates from college presidents, who used private donations, Mr. Daniel said.

Mr. Daniel also expensed a $341 picnic for the staff of the governor's Office of Planning and Budget and the Legislative Budget Office.

"Those people are dedicated state employees, and they don't get a lot of recognition, and they work real hard," Mr. Daniel said of the agencies that help put together the state budget, including the University System's. "It was a nice chance for us to say thank you to them."

Mr. Miller also received a shotgun and sportsman's jacket from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, listed as costing $1,500, according to lobbyist reports.

Another big-spending lobbyist was Julian Hester of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia. Mr. Hester is usually among the top spenders in the fall because he gives boxes of Christmas cards as gifts to lawmakers. This past year, his cards cost $7,552. He also spent $2,500 on legislative dinners.

The Georgia Association for Primary Health Care hosted three lawmakers at its Hilton Head Island, S.C., convention in November, according to lobbyist reports: outgoing Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Guy Middleton, D-Dahlonega; Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, D-Savannah, a member of the committee; and Rep. Larry "Butch" Parrish, D-Swainsboro.

Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines lobbyists showed they know who the big winners were in November. Combined, they reported spending more than $4,100 sponsoring a reception for the Democratic legislative caucuses.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.


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