ATLANTA -- The phrase freshman 15 usually refers to the weight that college students typically gain during their first year away from home.
Its said to happen at the state Capitol too, as lobbyists seek to treat lawmakers. But though food and other gifts abound, its not clear whether calories equal clout.
In this calendar year so far, registered lobbyists report spending some $1,750 on House Majority Leader Larry ONeal, R-Bonaire, and nothing on Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon. Sums spent on the other 14 lawmakers from Bibb and surrounding counties are scattered in between.
And clearly, the attention is tied to status, both men say.
I have seen over my time in the Legislature, depending on my level of leadership, how much attention I get from lobbyists, ONeal said. He was previously chairman of the powerful tax-vetting Ways and Means Committee, but he has since been bumped upstairs to the majority leader job.
Lucas said theres no question he gets less attention since his party lost the majority and committee chairs. Youre not in a position to run legislation, bring it up in a committee, he said.
But the equation is rough. ONeal said expenditures on him are higher, in part, because his wife always accompanies him to meals. Im a two-fer, the family man explained. Besides that, like many other legislators, the ONeals stay in Atlanta during the session.
Lucas, by contrast, commutes, so hes skipping private dinners, he said, adding, There havent been any real bills yet.
Among Middle Georgia disclosures, the smallest is a $1.25 DVD sent to Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, by Massey & Bowers, a lobbying company. The priciest is Falcons tickets, $548 worth, provided by Atlanta Gas Light to Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon.
Overall, expenses tend toward the more modest: most are under $30.
The reason this bothers people is were all human, said Anthony Nownes, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. People assume that legislators are more likely to go to bat for the people they know well rather than for strangers.
Yet, its almost impossible to prove if meals or football tickets translate into lobbyist influence, explained Nownes, the author of Total Lobbying: What Lobbyists Want (And How They Try to Get It) and a specialist on money in state legislatures.
Its not easy to get into lawmakers heads and say exactly why they cast a certain vote or spend time on an issue. But, Nownes pointed out, if it did not work, lobbyists probably wouldnt do it.
But logically and viscerally, he said, there seems to be something there. It may not be determinative, but it doesnt hurt, he explained, especially at the margins, when a legislator is teetering toward a certain point of view.
He also pointed out that business lobbies have more money to spend than so-called citizen lobbyists, the partisans of nonprofit causes who dont have the cash to hire anyone to court lawmakers over the dining table.
I think it matters, Nownes said. Maybe not on who the legislators might listen to, but definitely on who they hear from.
Data already show that all other things being equal, lobbyist expenditures favor incumbents, Nownes said, because they have a high rate of re-election. Both ONeal and Lucas are incumbents, but the latters party is waning at the Capitol. Yet the two also fit a data-proven trend: the majority party and committee chairs do indeed attract more lobbyist attention.
Lobbyists report that theyve spent roughly $125,000 on specific legislators and staff this year.
Yet, thats dwarfed by the $340,000 or so spent on blanket gifts -- either to all legislators or to smaller groups of legislators that lobbyists fail to break into several line items on disclosure forms.
Visible at the front of most office suites are at least a mini-fridge stocked with Cokes and sometimes a custom coffee machine. Most days, legislators and staffers can line up for a free buffet somewhere in the building or step across the street to a delightful old train station restored as an event hall, where there are fancier feasts, such as the Savannah Chamber of Commerces $84,000 seafood dinner.
And when informal caucuses meet in their offices, their work often starts at a time that gives members an opportunity to take a plate of barbecue or fried chicken or whatever a lobbyist-sponsor has ordered.
Its easy to put on weight at the Capitol.