Originally created 01/03/06

Lobbyists' work is seen in tort reform

ATLANTA - Across the street from the state Capitol, in a building used to welcome tourists and hold meetings, there's a machine that illustrates how a law is made.

Push a button, and a ball goes rolling through the legislative process, either to be rejected or accepted at each stage. It's like a legislative version of a pinball machine.

The machine has all the necessary phases of the process - committee votes, floor debate, even a man with a mallet to portray the governor who can either sign or veto the bill.

One thing noticeably absent from the display, however, is everything outside the legislative process.

Each year, special interest groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to influence practically every bill that goes before the General Assembly. From cornering House members in the hall to taking in a Braves game with senators, lobbyists work to court lawmakers and win them to their cause.

Lawyers, teachers

As lobbyists tell it, their role is a cross between a teacher and a lawyer.

"Lobbyists provide information and perspective," said lobbyist James "Jet" Toney.

That information is valuable to lawmakers who often must contend with the hundreds or even thousands of pieces of legislation that are introduced every two years.

"As legislators, we have to be somewhat a jack of all trades," said Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem. "And there's no way that we can be that, of course."

Even if their roles are usually less sinister than those commonly portrayed by Hollywood, lobbyists do have a great deal of influence on the political process. Many of the bills that eventually make their way to legislators' desks are originally conceived by lobbyists.

"I think a lot of the legislation that gets drafted gets drafted by people in outside interest groups," said Bill Bozarth, a lobbyist for good-government group Common Cause of Georgia.

One example of lobbyists' attempt to influence legislation in recent years was the war over tort reform that culminated in the passage in 2005 of a measure restricting medical-malpractice lawsuits. In winning victory, lobbyists involved in the fight said, they used many of the tools they depend on in larger and smaller battles every day.

An election victory

The 2005 battle over tort reform had deep roots in the elections of 2004.

For several years, business and medical interests had been trying to get a law limiting malpractice suit awards. Members of the Democratic leadership, particularly those in the House, had stymied them, however.

In the 2004 election cycle, money flowed from several pro-reform groups into the campaign coffers of friendly candidates. Trial lawyers and their allies countered with sizable donations of their own.

According to the Institute on Money in State Politics, the largest single contributor to candidates in 2004 was the Georgia Trial Lawyers' Association, which dumped more than $450,000 into races across the state. The Medical Association of Georgia's political action committee, GAMPAC, countered with more than $200,000, and MAG Mutual, a related insurance company, poured almost as much into state races. Two of the state's biggest hospital groups pumped in an additional $300,000 between them, according to the institute.

When it was over, Republicans had strengthened their hand in the Senate and won control of the House.

Meals, ball games

The outcome in the state Senate, where tort reform had previously passed, was almost pre-ordained. In fact, little money was spent by either side for entertainment specifically tied to Senate Bill 3, the tort reform vehicle, according to lobbyist reports filed with the State Ethics Commission.

Lobbyists often do not disclose the exact legislation they discuss with lawmakers or jot down general answers such as "health care issues" that make it difficult to figure out exactly what the money is being spent on.

But sometimes, lobbyists say, there isn't a particular bill that takes up much attention.

"Having a meal or attending a function like a ball game is an opportunity to build a relationship and that credibility," said Arthur "Skin" Edge, a former Senate Republican leader who now lobbies. "Frankly, a lot of times, probably the majority of the time ... not a lot of business is discussed."

As for the perception that meals could somehow "buy" a legislator's vote, lobbyists and lawmakers both scoff at the idea.

Grass roots, media

After passing the House, though, the bill hit a last-minute snag. A ragtag coalition of senators, some of whom supported tort reform and others who did not, combined to block an attempt to get the upper chamber to agree to changes made by the House.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Preston Smith, a Rome Republican who shepherded tort reform through the Senate, said he believed some of the lawmakers who voted against the bill felt free to do so because they thought it was going to pass.

Some pro-reform lawmakers later said they were concerned that the House had raised the cap on non-economic damages.

Lobbyists were taking no chances, though. They swamped legislators who might be willing to switch their votes with hundreds of calls.

One member of the coalition reportedly distributed the home phone numbers of some lawmakers.

The coalition and its allies rallied local businessmen, doctors and others. When the Senate came back on Valentine's Day, it swiftly voted 38-15 to approve the House changes.


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