Smith: Lobbyists not an influence

By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL This year's committee dinner for the state House Natural Resources and Environment Committee has become controversial. The dinner was held Jan. 25, and it was the subject of a news story in a major Atlanta newspaper that kicked off a series of stories on lobbying and potential ethics reform.
Much of the scrutiny in the article was directed on the committee's chairman, State Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan. Attending the dinner were approximately 20 members of Smith's committee, as well as 10 lobbyist "sponsors" who enjoyed dinner with the legislators and picked up the check, with two lobbyists paying slightly more than the rest -- the Georgia Conservancy and the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation. "The premise [of the news story] was that a legislator can be influenced by a meal, and that is just not true," Smith said. "I've always made my decisions as a legislator and an individual on the merits of the issue," she said. "As a legislator, it's the merits of the issue, the points of view that I can gather from the constituents in my district," as well as technical information. "Sometimes, yes, you talk to lobbyists to get an idea," Smith said. "You can talk to two of them and get two totally different ideas," she said. "It's just a process of putting information together. I talk to agency heads. I'm all over our district all the time, trying to give information on the district I represent. "Lobbyists have no influence on me," she added. There is a wide variety of lobbyists at the Georgia capitol, and not all lobbyists are what one might expect. State agencies have lobbyists, city and county organizations -- and just about every other type of organization and association -- have lobbyists. Then there are the business lobbyists, many of whom work directly for the company they lobby for, and others who work for lobbying firms that contract their services. "Just about any issue you can think of has a lobbyist," Smith said. "I do my homework, and my homework doesn't include listening to just one person." If a lobbyist is giving legislators information that isn't trustworthy, they quickly find out. "What is the most important thing that a legislator or a lobbyist or a citizen has? ... The most important thing is that person's word and speaking the truth. Because it is going to come out anyway," Smith said. "If you have a legislator who is going to do their homework like I am -- I am going to ask around and find out. If I find someone has not leveled with me, that is when they don't have access to me." "Most of your legislators up there do their homework, and a lobbyist loses street cred if they don't tell the truth," Smith said. Likewise, "a legislator loses street cred with their fellow legislators if they don't tell the truth." Most, if not all, House and Senate committees have a committee dinner each year. "It gets your Democrats and Republicans together who are on your committee and it gives you a social setting to do it," Smith said. "When you're on the House floor and in the chamber and in your committees, people usually are positioned certain ways and such... and if it is always acrimony, then you don't solve issues." According to Smith, once they had picked a date for the dinner, they asked for sponsors. "I said, when you ask for sponsors make sure you get a broad spectrum," Smith said. But couldn't the committee members get together for dinner and pay for it themselves, without lobbyist sponsors? "Can we do it on our own? Yeah, we can still gather," Smith said. There was no set fee in order to be a sponsor or anything like that, Smith said. Instead, everybody ate and then the sponsors decided how to divide the costs. Smith said whenever such an event is put together, "I always say -- keep this at a moderate, reasonable cost." Smith was asked what the conversation was like at the committee dinner. "It is just more causal conversation," Smith said. "The people I was around were talking about their children, my grandchildren. I make it very clear -- you're not supposed to talk shop, period. A dinner doesn't equate to the right to tell this legislator this about an issue. That is just not what is supposed to take place. It really is social." "Maybe that is where the wrong impression comes in," she said. "Now what does a lobbyist see that they get in return ... I can't speak for any lobbyists," Smith said. But "I think to a certain extent, it is cultivating relationships." "It's just like a job in sales. You try and build relationships. You need to be honest and forthright and hope you can build a relationship so a legislator is willing to listen to you," Smith said. Lobbyists don't have any more special access to legislators than the average person has, according to Smith. "I make it a point to be out and about in the community, for the very purpose of meeting folks, she said. "If they have a concern or an issue, they're going to call me or ask me a question," Smith said. "They've met me, they know me." "I go everywhere I can to try and get a sense and a feel of this district," Smith said. "And as chair of Natural Resources, I also make it a point to get around the state, to hear from different river basin spokespersons" and the like. "I use state agencies, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, all different kinds of resources." And "keep in mind, your legislators are citizen legislators," she said. They are "people who live around the people they represent and not in a bubble." And her fellow legislators are usually the best sources of information. No matter what lobbyists are doing, it isn't secret. It's not supposed to be, anyway. Lobbyists are required to report their expenditures. You can see these reports by visiting the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission website at Lobbyist reports, as well as campaign finance reports, are available on the website. To see lobbyist reports, go to the bottom of the home page and click on "search reports." You can then choose the type of report you want. If you choose lobbyist reports, the easiest way to search is by expenditure, which allows you to search contributions to a particular legislator or committee, from a particular lobbyist or organization, or gifts over a certain amount. Smith thinks the transparency created by the reporting requirements, which were strengthened in 2010, is the best way to keep everything legitimate. Smith said when she was originally elected in the 1990s, information about lobbyist expenditures wasn't readily available to the public. When the Republicans gained the majority in 2005, the Republicans passed disclosure legislation. The updates in 2010 required lobbyists to report expenditures more frequently during the session "so people can see what is going on." According to the disclosure report for lobbyist gifts to the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, the other dinner sponsors were: The Georgia Poultry Federal, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Mining Association, Georgia EMC, the Georgia Agribusiness Council, and the Georgia Chemistry Council, as well as Steve Allen and Allen Richardson, who work for lobbying firms. Each of those sponsors paid $123.84, which was listed as covering "1.34 of the legislators attending." The Georgia Conservancy and the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation each paid $222.92. Smith is not in favor of a set cap on lobbyist payments, such as the $100 cap that is currently being discussed. That's because she fears such a move will lead to less transparency. "The states that have done that tend to have less transparency and openness... there are ways around things like that." The experience of Tennessee is a prime example. After a bribery scandal in 2005, the Tennessee legislature passed strict lobbyist limits in 2006. In 2010, Tennessee was "ranked as overall the most corrupt state in the country," Smith said. Either way, "I think these debates are very healthy," she said. "It is extremely important that we continue to look at ways the openness and transparency is readily available to the people we represent." The most important question is, "As a citizen, can I find out what is going on in the life of the legislature? I think the answer should be yes," Smith said. "Can we improve? I think there is always room for improvement." "I hope the folks who know me, who see me, who try and reach me, know that I am readily available," Smith said. When it comes to interacting with lobbyists, "[the public] needs to know what is happening, to see what your representative is doing, but at the same time -- you have to hope that the people you elect have a core sense of values and strength," Smith said. "And it has taken more strength to be a legislator than I ever thought I would need." To reach Smith, call her office at 404-656-7149 or email

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