ATLANTA -- The Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce was the top spender in a record year for lobbyist spending during the recently concluded 2000 General Assembly session.
Lobbyists spent more than $500,000 wining and dining state lawmakers, according to reports filed with the State Ethics Commission.
That amount, breaking a record set seven years ago, came during a session in which legislative leaders buried several proposed ethics reforms and passed a bill increasing campaign contribution limits.
"I would characterize the session as one step forward and three steps backward," said Robert Pregulman, director of the Atlanta-based Southern field office for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which opposed the campaign-finance measure.
More than half of the spending by lobbyists during the first three months of this year, roughly corresponding to the legislative session, was for receptions and meals for lawmakers, including annual food fests sponsored by various local chambers of commerce that have become a Capitol Hill tradition.
The Metro Augusta Chamber spent the vast majority of its $19,029 allotment on a barbecue in February, making it the biggest spender among lobbying groups.
"Is it worth it? No doubt about it," said James West, the Augusta chamber's president and CEO. "Augusta has lost a lot of its presence from its business community in Atlanta. ... We need to make the General Assembly aware that Augusta is the second largest city in Georgia with a strong medical and technical presence."
Rep. Alan Powell was the biggest recipient of the lobbyists' largesse among the lawmakers, receiving $2,040 worth of food and other goodies, according to the reports.
But Mr. Powell, D-Hartwell, disputed the figures, saying that a $600 item for a golf tournament was actually a campaign contribution. He also said he couldn't have eaten all of the meals attributed to him because he has been on a "pretty radical" diet.
Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, who received $1,533 from lobbyists, mostly in the form of meals, said lunch and dinner are the best times for lobbyists to sit down with lawmakers and discuss the issues they're interested in. But a free meal should not sway how a legislator votes, he said.
"If a lawmaker is making his decision based on a dinner or meal, the problem is more with the lawmaker than the system," he said.
Mr. Harbin said the key to clean politics is full disclosure, so that the public will know who is giving what to whom. The campaign-finance bill enacted by the legislature last month requires candidates for state and local offices to report contributions and expenditures electronically.
But Mr. Pregulman said disclosure is not a panacea.
"If you have a nuclear facility that is leaking and you disclose that it's dangerous, you then know the information," he said. "But does that in any way protect you? Probably not. All disclosure tells you is that lawmakers are able to raise more and more money from fewer and fewer people."
Here is a look at what lobbyists spent on Augusta-area state lawmakers during the recent General Assembly session. Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, was among the biggest recipients of lobbyist dollars from any delegation.
Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez$1,533
Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta$1,181
Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta$1,117
Sen. Donald Cheeks, D-Augusta$726
Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling$502
Rep. Jack Connell, D-Augusta$351
Rep. Henry Howard, D-Augusta$153
Rep. George DeLoach, R-Hephzibah$128
Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta$86
Rep. Bill Jackson, R-Appling$29
Source: State Ethics Commission
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