Originally created 04/21/01

Lobbyist spending covers wide range



ATLANTA - Lobbyists' wining and dining of Georgia lawmakers is a time-honored tradition, but not everybody plays.

According to reports filed with the State Ethics Commission, the amount lobbyists spent wooing legislators during the recently completed General Assembly session varied widely, from nothing in the case of a few to nearly $2,000 in three months.

In total, lobbyists spent more than $475,000 attempting to influence the Legislature, not quite as much as last year's record of more than $500,000.

Much of the spending was for meals and receptions for lawmakers, during which representatives of businesses and nonprofit organizations pitched their priorities to legislators. But lobbyists also took lawmakers on golf outings and to pro basketball and hockey games.

While good-government advocates long have been concerned about the courting of lawmakers with such freebies, the issue is hardly clear-cut, said Steve Alfred, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

"It is certainly reasonable for lobbyists to want to have a quiet, relaxed time to make their case," he said. "When that gets to be a lavish restaurant ... it's more than a relaxed atmosphere. It's an attempt to gain some kind of influence."

But Rep. Bob Smith said meeting with lobbyists over a meal doesn't mean a lawmaker is going to do what that business or organization wants.

"Sometimes, I don't agree with them," said Mr. Smith, R-Watkinsville, who received $1,764 in favors from lobbyists, one of the largest amounts spent on an individual legislator. "They sometimes get frustrated when I don't vote their way. But I do want to listen to them."

In the list of Augusta area state lawmakers, lobbyists spent the most on Rep. Ben Harbin - $1,605. Mr. Harbin, R-Martinez, said Friday that the process of lobbying shouldn't be seen as a bad thing.

"I've always been courted by lobbyist, to talk to them on their issues," he said. "And I think a lot of that is because I've always had a little influence. We've always been able to get things done."

Mr. Alfred said a bill introduced late in the session by Sen. Mike Polak, D-Atlanta, would hold lobbyists more accountable by forcing them to disclose what they spend on legislators on a more timely basis than under the current system.

Disclosure is the best way to police lobbyists' spending, said Debbie Seagraves, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which spent $2,179 on a reception for lawmakers in February. The purpose was to give voters a chance to mingle with members of the General Assembly.

"If everybody is putting down everything, it's open government," she said. "People can decide if this is someone they want to vote for."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.


Area lawmakers

Here is a look at what lobbyists spent on Augusta-area state lawmakers during the recent General Assembly session:

Legislator/Amount

Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez/$1,605

Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta/1,141

Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta/740

Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling/668

Rep. Jack Connell, D-Augusta/410

Rep. Bill Jackson, R-Appling/257

Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta/240

Rep. George DeLoach, R-Hephzibah/161

Rep. Henry Howard, D-Augusta/155

Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta/66

Source: State Ethics Commission