When the gavel bangs to open the 2013 session of the Georgia General Assembly, I would suggest the first order of business be to have Willie Nelson serenade our solons with “The Party’s Over.” Willie sings that song better than almost anybody and it would be an effective way to remind our intrepid public servants that there is a new sheriff in town.
We the Unwashed are calling the shots on lobbying reform these days and it tickles my ribs. Maybe legislators thought that if we were dumb enough to keep re-electing them we were dumb enough to buy their spiel that being wined and dined by lizard-loafered lobbyists and mooching tickets to sporting events and golf outings was their way of getting important information on critical issues in order to better serve us. Bull patoot. Why don’t they invite us, too, and let us hear the information for ourselves?
Legislators insist also that while they may be treated like Rajahs by lobbyists, this in no way, shape, form or fashion influences their decisions. More bull patoot.
But this party could be winding down. When we dropped in on House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge in July, he had amassed $5,971.99 worth of free meals, drinks, junkets to posh resorts, tickets to sporting events, a necktie (color unknown) and even a cake (type unknown.) Being the eternal optimist, I was sure he would easily top $10,000 by year’s end. When he did, I was going to suggest we all send the speaker a necktie and a cake to celebrate this singular achievement.
Imagine my surprise when I checked out the lobbyist expenditures for the speaker in August via his beloved Georgia Government Transparency (inhale) and Campaign Finance Committee’s website. I got a big fat zero!
Actually, it is a little more complicated than that. On Aug. 27, Kevin Walls, a lobbyist for AT&T, spent $15.30 cents on Ralston for refreshments and then subtracted $15.30 the same day. That is how we got to zero.
What happened? Maybe the speaker didn’t like his drink. Maybe Walls caught Ralston using a Verizon phone and made the speaker buy his own drink. Maybe the lobbyist ordered the drink before Ralston showed up and the speaker never appeared because he knew I would tell you and he is tired of seeing his name in this space each month.
Whatever the reason, Ralston whiffed for August. Could this be the start of a trend? I decided to randomly check on a couple of other legislative poobahs to see if all the fun is being sucked out of their high living.
The first name that came to mind was Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who is currently under criminal investigation by the GBI for filing false expense account reports. He calls it an “inadvertent mistake.” The Senate Ethics Committee fined Balfour $5,000 for his boo-boo although they taped newspapers over the windows so nobody could see them do it. (I don’t make this stuff up.)
Balfour, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, has been known to accept a freebie from lizard-loafered lobbyists on occasion. (Wink! Wink!) Through July, he had racked up $3,968.65 worth of goodies in 2012 but his August total was only $196.95. Chump change.
Sen. Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, was once the leading freeloader in the Legislature. In 2009, he received $14,547 in lobbying largesse and 12,202.94 in 2011. This year with a strong opponent in the Republican primary, the Chipster was returning gifts as fast as he got them, including tickets to the Monster Jam and a bag of coffee. Through August, lobbyists have spent a whopping $381.64 on him, saving themselves $11,821.30 and a lot of coffee.
Maybe August was an aberration or maybe politicians are tired of getting continually hammered by the media over the issue of unfettered lobbying and have accepted the inevitable. Speaker Ralston has said he hears you (finally!) and that he intends to ban all lobbying expenditures in the upcoming session. No word yet on what the Senate will do. I hope they will take me on a golf outing and tell me over drinks and dinner.
Let’s don’t declare victory just yet but when next you see your local legislators, why don’t you croon “The Party’s Over” to them? You won’t be mistaken for Willie Nelson, but I suspect they will get your point. This party might really be over in the Legislature. It’s about time.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.