Lawmakers wrestle with best way to address lobbyist legislation

mlee@macon.comFebruary 4, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Georgia’s lawmakers have an image problem.

In non-binding straw polls this past summer, 72 percent of Democratic and 87 percent of GOP primary voters said they wanted a bill to limit lobbyist gifts to legislators. But midstate lawmakers doubt that new rules on the table would change behavior, saying they can’t legislate honesty, ethics or morality.

“If the guy’s going to be a crook, he’s going to be a crook. If he’s going to be bought, he’s going to be bought,” said state Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville. “That’s the way it is.”

That’s pretty close to what some of his midstate colleagues said Thursday, the day after an ad hoc subcommittee of the House Rules panel held its first hearing on House Bill 142, by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. The bill will be edited, but the first draft broadly aims to widen the definition of who is considered a lobbyist, and it bans gifts from lobbyists to legislators.

But any ethics legislation runs into a practical problem that might not have a perfect solution.

Determined rule breakers will find a way around any new rules, said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.

“At the end of the day, ethics reform is needed for those who are cheating already,” he said.

“People are going to do what they’re going to do,” agreed state Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello, “They’re going to find loopholes and ways to get around things.”

The Democratic and Republican polls came days after the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission found that a lobbyist who brought Ralston and his family on a $17,000 trip to Europe to study trains was not properly registered as a lobbyist.

Ralston did nothing wrong under Georgia rules or laws, but the cost of the trip was what made headlines.

The trip “was probably a bit much,” said state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, even on business that could be beneficial to the state. But she also pointed out that that kind of opportunity isn’t offered to regular legislators.

House Bill 142 as written has an exception for travel. And it maintains that lobbyists must declare what they give legislators.

But there’s a foggy spot in that seemingly clear rule: lobbyists who aren’t technically lobbyists under Georgia law, so they don’t file disclosures. CEOs or other executives don’t spend their days buttonholing legislators at the Capitol, but they do get in touch with lawmakers.

“Arthur Blank, Ted Turner, Turner’s inviting people up to his house in Montana for a week, three or four days, to go hunting, watch the game. No one’s ever disclosed that, though the law requires it be disclosed,” Kidd said.

Before being elected to the Legislature in 2009, he spent 38 years as a lobbyist. But he also said 99 percent of the time, it’s wrong to imagine legislators are getting way-out perks such as free rides on corporate jets.

What good are they?

There are 1,057 active lobbyists in Georgia who have declared spending $355,926.72 among Georgia’s 236 legislators by the end of January. That’s roughly $1,500 per lawmaker.

Lobbyists include volunteer representatives from the likes of the March of Dimes or the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. It also counts lobbyists for state agencies, as well as local and county governments, who try to shape legislation that affects their domains.

Then there’s the professional lobbyist who has one or more clients.

“We know the good ones and we know the ones we wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole,” Holmes said.

Many legislators say they see lobbyists as sources of expert information. Indeed, reading the lawyer-drafted bills that are filed by the dozen every day is sometimes like trying to read a foreign language.

“There are a lot of lobbyists, a lot of them are attorneys and they have helped me clear up some misunderstandings that I’ve had about certain pieces of legislation,” said Randall, who was herself a lobbyist before joining the Legislature in 1999.

“Legislators can’t be bought by a meal or a ticket to a ball game. ... That’s not the point (of lobbying). The point of it is building relationships.”

And besides that, she explained, no legislator would go out twice with a lobbyist who goes on and on talking about their issue all the way through dinner.

“I think the public has been really misled as to the nature of the relationship” between lobbyist and legislator, Randall said.

Kidd has proposed reversing the mirror. His HB 61 would make legislators disclose everything they receive, rather than making lobbyists list everything they give.

“Why should the law regulate them (lobbyists) and if they do don’t do properly, my name will get smeared in the paper?” he asked.

But he acknowledges that he filed the bill just to generate conversation.

“I had it back in my first year, in 2010,” he said. “It didn’t get a hearing then, and it won’t get a hearing now.”

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