AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Horse racing crowd offers feed to lawmakers studying gambling, per usual

Georgia lawmakers meet in committees over the summer and fall, studying everything from saltwater intrusion and drones to major rewrites of the state tax code.

All that meeting makes them hungry. And they need to be fed.

The tab usually winds up in the hands of the folks sitting in the audience at the meetings, lobbyists with skin in the game.

In August, it was the Ways & Means Committee, the tax-bill writing panel that was considering legislation that would lower state income taxes but raise sales taxes.

The cable TV industry is an interested party because the bill also mentions service taxes on broadcast satellite service and sets the rate for other telecommunications industries.

Cable industry lobbyists chipped in $434 to feed the committee lunch when it met in mid-August.

A month later House and Senate committees, both with the words "preservation of HOPE" in their names, met to talk about how gambling could keep the scholarship program financially sound in the future. While the casino crowd got a lot of the publicity, it was a lobbyist for the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition, onetime Senate Minority Leader Skin Edge, who footed the $473 bill for the committee lunch.

Such group meals are a common way for lobbyists to get chow cred from the General Assembly. Legislators get a free lunch or dinner, and lobbyists get to hang out with decision-makers.

Committee chairmen even sometimes provide free advertising for those lobbyists and their clients by posting a sign announcing lunches and dinners (listing the sponsors, of course) on the doors of meeting rooms or announcing the free eats at the meetings themselves.

The tradition is more obvious during General Assembly sessions, when lobbyists spend $60,000 or more a year on breakfasts, lunches and dinners for committees, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of lobbyist disclosures.

Among the biggest spenders are lawyer groups, like the State Bar and trial lawyers. Groups listed spending about $9,000 last session on a few big meals for the House and Senate committees that handle legal issues.

Two other popular committees in the reports lobbyists file are the House and Senate Appropriations and Rules Committees.

The appropriations committees approve billions of dollars in state spending, so it's no surprise its members are popular with lobbyists. Lobbyists reported spending about $8,000 on meals for the committee last session. Among those paying for committee lunches and dinners were Centene,  a state contractor that has been paid nearly $4 billion over the past five years to provide health insurance to Medicaid and PeachCare recipients, and several big hospital and medical groups trying to pump up and/or protect health care spending.

The Rules Committees decide what bills get a vote on the House and Senate floor, and lobbyists spent about $6,300 for the meals of committee members during the session.

None of those figures include individual lobbyists taking out individual lawmakers who run or serve on those committees. For instance,  lobbyists reported another $2,000 on food for Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga during the session. There are about 80 food entries for Mullis in lobbyist disclosures during the 2015 session. And that doesn't include committee dinners and lunches. All committee members are invited to those.

The committee lunches and dinners continue in the off-season, but they aren't as prevalent because committees meet less frequently and lobbyists are busy wining and dining lawmakers at beachfront conventions. However,  the committee lunches and dinners will start cranking up again early next year, providing their annual boost to the bottom line of Atlanta restaurants, and boost to the  waistline of lawmakers.






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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.