New Ga. lobbying rules still allow state legislators to accept lavish summer travel



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ATLANTA — New lobbying rules in Georgia have not put much of a damper on free beach convention travel for state politicians.

An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (http://bit.ly/1uV6Dm2 ) shows lobbyists spent more than $100,000 hosting lawmakers and state officials at roughly two-dozen summertime conferences. Many were held on the coast of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina during June and July.

That spending increased by about 35 percent from 2012, the year before state lawmakers adopted some limits on lobbyist expenditures. However, the new law left open a loophole that still allows lobbyists to pay generously when lawmakers travel for work purposes.

Year-to-year comparisons are imprecise. Lobbyist spending can vary for a variety of reasons. For example, Google spent larger-than-normal sums this year taking state leaders to California. The information filed by the state does not capture all the spending. Lobbyists are supposed to report their own spending to the state's ethics commission, and some don't comply.

"There is no mechanism for the commission to have checks and balances and verify what is being spent," said Rick Thompson, a former commission executive secretary. "Without it, you have a good faith effort."

Even if the numbers are imprecise, they show the new rules have not seriously reduced free lawmaker travel to traditional beach conventions.

When they adopted spending caps, state lawmakers exempted "educational, informational, charitable, or civic meetings or conferences that . directly relate to the official duties of that public officer."

Many groups inviting lawmakers to annual conventions and meetings have big financial stakes in the Statehouse.

One of the priciest conventions is the Georgia Chamber of Commerce meeting at the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort on St. Simons Island, which generated about $16,000 in lobbyist spending. In July, the Georgia Mining Association hosted five lawmakers and Gov. Nathan Deal at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club on Florida's east coast at an annual convention that featured golf and fishing tournaments, special activities for children and door prizes. The industry's lobbyist reported spending about $4,600 on lodging and meals for state officials.

The Medical Association reported spending just under $10,000 on lodging and meals for lawmakers attending its summer legislative update at Jekyll Island in July.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, a proponent of limiting lobbyist spending, attended the meeting and spoke at a panel on medical malpractice. McKoon said he reimburses the medical association for his expenses, but he has no problem with keeping such spending legal.

"It's important because when we don't have a full-time legislature and none of us are subject-matter experts, there is value in going to meetings and meeting with the subject-matter experts," McKoon said. "Obviously we have to be careful about these meetings. If it starts getting out of hand, if it gets to where they are feeling more like a junket than an education event . then we are probably going to want to revisit that (exception)."


Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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