By Benita M. Dodd
Georgians need only access the latest lobbyist expenditure report on the State Ethics Commission’s Web site to understand the implications for taxpayers should legislators agree to do away with the registration requirement for state agency lobbyists.
For February, according to the State Ethics Commission’s Web site (www.ethics.state.ga), lobbyists for the Georgia Board of Regents reported spending more than $11,000 on meals, tickets, receptions and sponsorship of events for legislators.
Even so, the Board of Regents was outspent by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s lobbyists, who in February reported funding events and tickets for legislators totaling nearly $36,000.
The Georgia Rail Passenger Authority spent $250.
Whatever the amount, however, the unintended consequence of legislation aimed at improving Georgia’s ethics laws would be to rob voters of such vital information as how much is being spent on whom by state government in an attempt by state agencies, authorities and boards to influence legislators and legislation.
Unfortunately, legislation under consideration by the General Assembly takes a huge step back by redefining who is a lobbyist. The legislation would exclude any full-time employee of the executive or judicial branch “acting within the scope of that person’s full-time employment.”
More than 30 percent of Georgia’s registered lobbyists represent state agencies; the state ranks second in the nation for the number of state government lobbyists.
While Georgians would like to believe that the actions of government are impartial, unbiased and for the public good, the harsh truth is that the propensity of agencies to perpetuate, expand and justify their existence frequently results in improper influence and unfair bias that hurts the voter and the taxpayer.
Instead of restricting disclosure by lobbyists, the Legislature ought to be broadening lobbyist registration requirements. The definition needs to include those influential individuals who are not now required to disclose their attempts to sway government: those who reach beyond legislators to influence the regulators: the state’s rule-making or rate-setting agencies.
Currently, there is no Georgia disclosure requirement from representatives of groups and companies that seek to sway such executive branches as the Department of Natural Resources and its Environmental Protection Division, the Public Service Commission or the Insurance Commissioner.
Several states have enacted fair legislation that requires disclosure by parties that lobby both legislators and the executive agencies that establish rules and regulations — and government and voters are better served by such transparency.
But this state’s administration has turned in another direction. An executive order now bars executive agency employees from interacting with lobbyists. Employees must “strongly encourage any lobbyist wishing to meet with the Governor or his staff regarding his or her client and/or principal to bring a principal of his or her client to such a meeting,” according to the executive order.
The logistics of such an executive order are often unachievable; CEOs and public affairs managers, often out of state and otherwise occupied, of necessity must delegate their viewpoint to the lobbyists who are paid to linger as long as is necessary as their representatives in the corridors of power.
There’s no argument that in a 236-member Legislature with more than 1,100 lobbyists, the danger exists of too much information, too much influence.
But remember “The Wizard of Oz”? “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too!”
Treating every lobbyist as the Wicked Witch of the West and off-limits to the administration, and by extension to lawmakers, hurts government more than it helps the public’s perception of government integrity.
A part-time Legislature such as Georgia’s can make a 40-day session drag out to what seems like an eternity, but even then, lawmakers don’t have the time or the staff to digest and discern the value of every piece of legislation.
Georgia’s lobbyists are, in fact, invaluable resources. Specialists in their areas of expertise, the well-informed lobbyist can help decipher the overwhelming information in a legislative session. To understand their value, consider the huge number of bills introduced this session. The General Assembly Web site lists 777 House bills and 313 Senate bills introduced.
Some bills, like Rep. John Noel’s tongue-in-cheek proposal to mandate sweet tea in restaurants, are easily dismissed; others can involve complicated issues such as riparian rights or eminent domain and virtually require a translator. Georgia’s lobbyists often ease the burden. Specialists in their areas of expertise, they can promote their view, but the good lobbyist facilitates decision-making and the passage of reasonable legislation that has been enacted after weighing the impact on all sides.
When an agency chief or legislator is educated with the opposing viewpoints of lobbyists from the environmental activist group and the utility, the neighborhood association and the developer, or the consumer group and the corporation, the result ought to be a better informed decision-maker.
A lobbyist who delivers bad information loses credibility and won’t last long. Lobbyists who would buy influence, and the bought legislators, are quickly revealed when disclosure requirements are adequate and the information is easily accessible to voters and advocates of good government.
An individual attempting to influence legislation, rules or rates on behalf of any interest should be clearly visible so that reasonable people can decide for themselves whether they serve the public good or selfish interests. That’s just good government.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 28, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.