Local lawmakers courted by lobbyists with entertainment, food

LAWRENCEVILLE - Expensive meals and high-priced tickets to sporting events flowed freely to Gwinnett County lawmakers during the recently concluded General Assembly session, reports filed by lobbyists show.

Two Republican legislators took in more than $1,000 in gifts from lobbyists during the first three months of this year, roughly equivalent to the length of the session, according to disclosures submitted to the State Ethics Commission. Another five local GOP lawmakers, including Barrow County's senator, received between $500 and $1,000 in freebies.

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, led the way among members of the Gwinnett legislative delegation with $1,178 in gifts, followed by Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, with $1,044.

Those numbers, however, paled in comparison to the freebies showered upon other leaders of the General Assembly's Republican majority.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, topped that list with $3,202 in gifts, while lobbyists spent $2,683 on House Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, and $2,245 on Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

All told, lobbyists spent nearly $850,000 on members of the Legislature during the 2006 session, breaking the record of more than $750,000 set last year.

Much of that money was spent in increments of $20 to $50 on meals for individual lawmakers or on receptions for large groups of legislators, where the pro-rata spending was relatively moderate. Those events tended to take place at or near the Capitol, where lobbyists used the opportunity to educate one or more lawmakers on their issues.

But there were also plenty of lavish meals at Atlanta's finest restaurants costing $100 or more, and lobbyists passed out dozens of expensive tickets to sporting events, including the Sugar Bowl - played this year at the Georgia Dome - and the March NASCAR race in Hampton.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver introduced legislation into the House this year aimed at doing away with the more expensive freebies by setting a gift limit of $50.

"Very few of us in the General Assembly can't afford our own steak dinner or a ticket to a sporting event,'' said Oliver, D-Decatur. "A gift limit is a reasonable step to moderate the influence of money in politics.''

But Oliver got no further with her bill than Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue last year, when he proposed a $50 gift limit as part of a comprehensive ethics reform measure only to see GOP legislative leaders take it out of the bill that eventually passed.

Among the Gwinnett lawmakers, Balfour and Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, got tickets to the Sugar Bowl to see the University of Georgia lose to West Virginia, while Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, received tickets to the NASCAR race.

Balfour said that, rather than a gift limit, he views "full disclosure'' as the best way to achieve ethics reform.

"If someone takes me to a nice restaurant, my constituents can look at it,'' he said.

Balfour, Unterman and Sen. Ralph Hudgens, R-Comer, who represents Barrow County, are all popular targets of lobbyists because the three Republicans have important committee assignments.

Balfour is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which decides which bills get to the floor of the chamber. Unterman, who received $778 in gifts from lobbyists during the session, heads an important budget subcommittee.

Hudgens is chairman of the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee. He got $729 in freebies during the session.

At the same time, other influential local Republicans received far fewer gifts from lobbyists. Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, chairman of the Senate Science and Technology Committee, ranked well down the Gwinnett list with only $188 in gifts.

"When I get done with business down there, I come home,'' said Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill, who got only $197 in freebies.

"I don't go drinking and carousing or to sporting events.''

Sen. Dan Weber topped all of the local lawmakers when it comes to avoiding handouts. All he got during the session was a $10 gift card for Starbucks coffee.

"In an ideal world, lawmakers could do their jobs and not have to take money or receive free meals or sports tickets from lobbyists,'' said Weber, R-Dunwoody, who represents northern DeKalb County and a portion of western Gwinnett. "I don't want to be beholden to them.''