Originally created 04/30/01

Capitol is used to perks



ATLANTA - The Georgia Optometric Association spent more than $11,500 during this year's General Assembly session to try to persuade lawmakers to pass a bill allowing optometrists to write prescriptions.

The Georgia Society of Ophthalmology spent less than $4,000 to stop it, according to lobbyist disclosure reports both organizations filed with the State Ethics Commission.

In this case, the lesser-funded ophthalmologists prevailed and the measure died.

But the tussle between the two groups of eye specialists was the proverbial exception that proves the rule on Capitol Hill, where 14 businesses and associations spent more than $10,000 each during January, February and March - coinciding with the legislative session - feeding and entertaining lawmakers in an effort to influence bills affecting their interests.

Similar to another time-honored tradition - campaign contributions to legislative candidates by special interests - the practice of wining and dining lawmakers during the General Assembly session long has drawn fire from good-government groups.

Bestowing such favors allows well-heeled companies and professional associations to gain greater access to legislators than public-interest organizations with smaller budgets, let alone members of the general public, said Steve Alfred, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

"We are clearly interested in what Common Cause refers to as `follow the money,"' he said. "What are lobbyists contributing and what is getting passed?"

But representatives for some of the biggest spenders during this year's session dismiss allegations of such a direct quid-pro-quo relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. They say most of what their companies do is more about establishing a rapport with legislators than cajoling them to vote one way or another on specific bills.

"It's all about building relationships," said Mike Vaquer, a lobbyist for International Paper Co., which spent more than $18,000 during the 2001 legislative session, the third-highest total.

The scattershot nature of much of the lobbying business is borne out by the broad agendas of the two biggest spenders on this year's list, the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. Both organizations include a variety of businesses with a wide range of interests.

The two spent the vast majority of their lobbying budgets - about $24,300 in the case of the Savannah chamber and nearly $23,100 by the Augusta chamber - on highly popular annual dinners they put on for the entire General Assembly, statewide elected officials and state agency staffers.

Lobbyists with more narrow interests often focus their efforts on smaller groups of lawmakers, sponsoring luncheons or dinners for members of legislative committees that deal with subjects that concern them.

But the system's critics say the influence that businesses bring to bear through such contacts can and often does outweigh the wishes of lawmakers' constituents.

Hundreds of voters signed petitions last fall asking the General Assembly to pass a Water Bill of Rights declaring water a public resource. But the measure was tied up throughout this year's session, and ultimately died, because business groups objected to the wording of some of the provisions.

"That's a good example of powerful interest groups ... not being willing to give up any perceived right to use water as they see fit," said Mark Woodall, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.

All but one of this year's top spenders among lobbyists is either an individual company or a business association. The lone exception is an offshoot of state government, the Georgia University System Board of Regents, which ranked fifth on the list.

Although the university system is part of the public sector, it has plenty at stake, including its annual operating and capital-projects budgets.

Ms. Staley said the ophthalmologists have gotten a lot of bang for the relatively small bucks they've put into the struggle with the optometrists for the past four years because they've opted for one-on-one contacts with lawmakers instead of lavish receptions.

She's not apologetic about the practice, particularly in light of the commitment legislators have made to be in public service.

"If I'm a legislator and I leave my job for three months, (favors from lobbyists) are not nearly going to make up for the income I'm losing," she said. "If one way I can help them serve is buying them a meal, I'm happy to do that."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.