Walter Jones Column

Lobbyists say the game is changing

by Walter C. Jones, Morris News Service

ATLANTA – Here’s irony for you: Georgia lobbyists complain that they have little influence over how they’re portrayed in the media and that their impact in the General Assembly is slipping.

That’s not their sales pitch to potential clients, of course, but they say various factors are changing the game at the Capitol.

News reports of “influential special interests” have already documented that lobbyist spending was about one-third lower this legislative session. Casual observers credit a new Senate rule capping expenditures and a session-long debate about making some version of that cap state law. A bill setting a $75 limit is awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature.

The lobbyists say the formal restrictions are only part of the picture. Another part is reluctance by some legislators to appear under the sway of lobbyists, insisting on paying their own way at dinners, even if they’re stunned at the size of the tab.

The legislative schedule was another factor. Unlike other sessions since Republicans took control, this year the House and Senate were in session on Mondays and Fridays as well as the middle of the week, leaving fewer opportunities to drive into Buckhead for a swanky lunch.

Yet another factor is the higher rate of turnover among the lawmakers. The average legislative career used to be about 15-20 years, ample time over multiple sessions for lobbyists to build relationships with the politicians as they worked their way up the leadership ladder.

Now, careers average half as long, and many chairmen of major Senate committees are just in their second, two-year term.

One lobbyist admitted recently that he couldn’t pick most of the freshmen legislators out of a police lineup.

Veteran lobbyists say the lunches, dinners, golf outings and ballgames aren’t when they even talk about specific legislation. That’s why most leave blank on their state expenditure forms the bill numbers discussed at outings with politicians. In fact, too much talk about business only guarantees the next invitation will be turned down, lobbyists say.

Instead, those occasions are how they establish a rapport with legislators. Then late in the session, in the midst of legislative battles when there’s no time for long conversations about potential consequences of bills to be voted on as deadlines rapidly approach, lobbyists tap into that reservoir of trust to win votes.

But why the expensive outings?

If a busy legislator gets an invitation from a lobbyist he doesn’t know to meet in the office or over a cup of coffee, most people would have no trouble declining or scheduling a very short conference. However, if the invitation is to a ball game or nice restaurant, it’s more tempting.

As one salesman explained the same technique, “They don’t know me, but they know the Braves or they know Bones (restaurant). And if we spend a couple of hours together, elbow to elbow, sharing some laughs, then he’ll feel like he knows me.”

Of course, even without the ability to wine and dine, lobbyists still have an advantage over other citizens who don’t have the time to spend three months at the Capitol, learning the jargon and procedural intricacies. Just being a recognizable face from the hallways, up on all the gossip and inside jokes, provides lobbyists an entre not open to ordinary voters.

On the other hand, the lobbyists are quick to point out that a few phone calls, visits or even emails from constituents can trump a multi-year lobbying effort on a given vote.

That’s why groups that mobilize what insiders call Astroturf -- or artificial grassroots reaction -- should be required to report to the state their expenditures, too, lobbyists say. After all, a few thousand dollars spent on dinners is small potatoes compared to the cost of a voter survey or a sophisticated grassroots campaign.

The members of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association would add one more gripe: unregistered lobbyists. These are the corporate executives, real-estate developers and former government staffers who are actively working to influence legislators, drafting bills and negotiating bargains with opponents. Yet, they don’t declare themselves as lobbyists, and they don’t file expenditure reports.

Some never set foot in the Capitol, working instead by phone or private, off-site meetings.

The members of the lobbyist association say they’re comfortable with the new guidelines and they’ll diligently follow them. They just want everyone else to follow them, too.


(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998.) 

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