A look at political perks before new law begins

8:14 PM, Dec 30, 2013   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- Starting January 1, Georgia lobbyists will have limits for the first time on how much they can spend to shower politicians with food and gifts.

So far this year registered lobbyists have given more than $1.1 million in political perks.  That's slightly less than the $1.4 million spent in 2012, but lobbyists have yet to report any gifts given in December.

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According to disclosure reports filed with the state's Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, Milton councilman Burt Hewitt got two tickets worth $300 from AT&T to attend an Elton John concert.

Utility regulator Bubba McDonald let the power company SCANA send him on a $250 golf outing. AT&T teamed up with Hardin & Associates to take three other Public Service Commissioners and their wives to a $800 dinner.

Not to be out done, in just two months, Georgia Power spent $18,000 to wine and dine decision makers.

"Part of the job of lobbyists is to get to know the Georgia officials and that is extremely difficult to do during the hectic days and hours of the legislative session," said Chairman Jet Toney with GA's Professional Lobbyist Association.

But Representative Don Parsons says he used the two Falcons football tickets he got from Sprint, to spend the day with his grandson. The tickets cost $340, raising eyebrows from some, considering he Chairs the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications committee.

Parsons says he's not hiding anything.  He voted for the new law and says at the time he took the tickets, he was well within his right to do so.

"The expenditures you mentioned are well within the law," added Toney.

So are the tickets at least 11 lawmakers received to college football games in October and November. In fact, the University system spent more than $30,000 swooning lawmakers, almost double any other organization.

"They are at the top of the list each year as those that pay for the most meals and other gifts to lawmakers," said William Perry with Common Cause.

Perry says they'll likely stay on top, too.  Because in 2014, all lobbyists, except those with state agencies, will be banned from giving public officials free tickets to sporting events and other recreational activities.

There's a cap on food and other gifts at $75 per public official, but the rules have as many holes as Swiss cheese and all parties argue there's a lot of room for interpretation in the new law.

Still Perry, who helped lobby for the change, says it's a start.

"We're seeing more and more legislators, especially those that are being newly elected rejecting all gifts, so I think the attention on this issue has caused more of a reduction on the gifts than the actual law," he said.

Toney says there are just as many lobbyists that don't register, as do. He believes that's the real concern, since there's no law to tell you how that money is being spent.

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