Originally created 02/28/05

Limits on gifts remain in limbo



ATLANTA - When Meghan Burke-Abowd trekked to the Capitol last week to talk to lawmakers, it was not because she was one of the high-paid lobbyists who often line the halls hoping for a moment with legislators.

It was because of her two sons who rely on Medicaid for the occupational therapist who helps them deal with their autism.

But Medicaid's reimbursement rates are slipping, and those rates might cause Ms. Burke-Abowd to lose the therapist who taught her 7-year-old son how to write even though he is only 18 months old developmentally.

"I'm just very hopeful that making a personal appearance here and seeing pictures of my boys will make a difference," the 39-year-old math professor said.

Ms. Burke-Abowd has never taken a representative to dinner and has never paid for a senator to take in an Atlanta Falcons game at the nearby Georgia Dome.

But professional lobbyists spent more than $900,000 last year on food, professional sports and even plane tickets as they tried to get legislators and other state officials to see a particular issue their way. Lawmakers went on hunting trips, to college bowl games and golf matches, all on the lobbyists' dime.

In return, the lobbyists get to prevail on state officials, often giving the lawmaker or agency head their take on an issue.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, wants to cap the goodies lobbyists can give to officials at $50 unless the gift is connected to his or her official duties. But Mr. Perdue's ethics package has yet to emerge from committee well after the halfway point in the legislative session.

LAWMAKERS SAY the information they get from the lobbyists is useful when it comes to the hundreds of bills they are expected to consider and vote on during the course of the legislative session, which lasts 40 working days. Meanwhile, lobbyists are often paid to focus on a narrow set of issues and study the legislation carefully.

"It's a very useful avenue to hear the views and opinions of those experts who devote their lives to a particular issue," said Rep. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah.

As for the dinners that often play a prominent role in those efforts - food is easily one of the biggest spending items for lobbyists - some lawmakers say it's an easy way to get valuable information during a busy time of the year.

"Basically, you have to cram in meetings with constituents and experts any time you can," said Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem. "And we have to eat."

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said lobbyists likely believe the gifts give them access to lawmakers, and maybe some influence.

But Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell, said the biggest benefit of the spending is building a relationship between lawmaker and lobbyist.

He scoffed at the idea that a meal could sway a state officer's thinking.

"Any legislator, or any elected official, ain't going to be bought for a damn dinner," Mr. Powell said.

IN ALL, ACCORDING to a compilation of lobbyists' reports prepared by the State Ethics Commission, gifts to lawmakers and other state officials rang in at just more than $906,000 in 2004. They range from $1 in food for then-House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, to the $50,000 bash put on each year by the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce.

That event, which has become one of the highlights of the social scene among Capitol insiders, outstripped the second-largest expenditure by an almost 3-to-1 ratio.

Some lawmakers say the reports can be distorted by one large event, or even a misrepresentation.

For example, Mr. Powell looked into reports that he topped the list of state officials when it came to the amount of money lobbyists had spent on him. He found out one group had reported spending $3,250 to take him to the Kentucky Derby. But Mr. Powell said he had already paid for a ticket when lobbyists offered him another and promised to give his ticket to someone else.

"I think that a lot of the lobbyists send in the wrong figures," he said.

The money often follows the power. Republicans have found themselves feted more often, and Democrats have seen the invitations dwindle, as the GOP seized control of the General Assembly in the past few years.

"As a matter of fact, I'm afraid I'm going to have to start taking the lobbyists out if I want to talk to them," quipped Mr. Powell.

MR. PERDUE'S BILL, which would make a host of other changes to ethics laws in addition to the limits on lobbyists' gifts, has sat in a House committee since he proposed it earlier this year. The chamber's Republican leadership say they're committed to dealing with the issue before they leave Atlanta.

"We're still going to address it this year," House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said Friday.

A spokesman for the governor said Mr. Perdue is still optimistic.

"We're hopeful that we will get a strong ethics bill signed this legislative session," Derrick Dickey said.

Dr. Bullock noted that it often takes a scandal to provide the political pressure to force lawmakers to tighten up on ethics laws.

"We haven't had anything like that," he noted.

Some lawmakers say they wouldn't be heartbroken if the law were changed to limit gifts.

Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, said he would like to see limits.

"I would say on the whole that there's too much money involved," he said.

But others counseled caution.

"I think ethics legislation is needed," Mr. Jackson said. "There need to be some safeguards, but lobbyists need the ability to communicate and make contact with legislators."

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.

GETTING GIFTS

Here are some of the recipients of gifts from last year's session, as recorded by the State Ethics Commission and filed by lobbyists.

 •  Rep. Alberta Anderson, D-Waynesboro: $11.60
 •  Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta: $2,665.60
 •  Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem: $4,006.53
 •  Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans: $2,254.75
 •  Rep. Henry Howard, D-Augusta: $43.87
 •  Rep. Sistie Hudson, D-Sparta: $123.32
 •  Rep. Jimmy Lord, D-Sandersville: $654.90
 •  Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta: $756.11
 •  Rep. Pete Warren, D-Augusta: $178.98
 •  Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta: $138.07
 •  Sen. Jim Whitehead, R-Evans: $73.18

Note: Because of misspellings and other irregularities, numbers might be incomplete. Attempts were made to obtain numbers as accurately as possible. Money spent on groups of legislators is not included.

- Morris News Service