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Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Lobbying spending rebounds under Gold Dome

After years of declines, we've finally hit bottom and economic indicators have started pointing up again.

No, I'm not talking about home sales or the stock market. Instead, it's lobbyist spending under the Gold Dome.

Meals, trips and trinkets given from lobbyists to public officials (mostly state legislators) began falling like a stone in February 2012 -- a point closely aligned with when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, other media outlets and good government groups began closely scrutinizing the practice. Today, disclosed lobbyist spending is a shadow of its former self.

In 2014, registered lobbyists disclosed spending about $737,000 on public officials, a 60 percent decline over the $1.8 million spent in 2011.

Debate on the topic eventually led to statewide party referendums with large majorities favoring limits on lobbying spending. In 2013, lawmakers agreed to a $75 cap with lots of exceptions. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Through it all, year-over-year spending dropped and dropped. Beginning in February 2012, reported lobbying gifts fell 27 out of 33 months. It seemed we may never hit bottom -- and then we did.

With February's disclosure, year-over-year spending has increased for the past four months.

From November 2013 through February 2014, lobbyists recorded 3,025 individual gifts ranging from a $1 cup of coffee to a $23,000 reception. All told, lobbyists spent $296,684 during the period.

From November 2014 to last month, they spent $424,308 -- an increase of 43 percent.

What's behind the increase? First, there are more of them. In the most recent four months, lobbyists recorded 4,030 individual gifts -- an increase of more than 1,000.

Second, they were more generous. The individual gifts averaged $105.31 compared to $98.08 from the prior year.

One possible explanation is that lobbyists and lawmakers anticipated the reforms in 2013, much in the same way stock traders brace for bad economic news. Now the reforms are in place, lobbyists know the parameters (and the loopholes) and feel more confident in their spending.

Another variable is what I call the Snowjam Factor. The ill-timed snows of January 2014 caused lobbyists to cancel some pricey receptions. Not so this year. The Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce's $79,798 seafood feast is the prime example. It was canceled last January, but this year's event went off as scheduled.

It also is possible that the increase is a byproduct of "reform fatigue." Years of uncomfortable discussions about steak dinners and beach vacations produced the reforms, but that discussion also expended a lot of political capital. Now the discussion has moved on and the spending is seeking a new level.

It could also be a "dead cat bounce" -- a blip. Four months may not be long enough to tell.

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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.