ATLANTA — General Assembly approval next year of a proposed ethics reform measure could endanger an important fall tradition for Georgia lawmakers — free football tickets.
If Georgia and Georgia Tech have good seasons, lawmakers could also lose free tickets to bowl games. The ethics reform package includes a lobbyist gift ban that could include football tickets.
he games are an important lobbying tool for big state schools because lawmakers vote on a state budget.
Some say lawmakers should get rid of the free tickets all together. But others argue that the tickets are a way to get lawmakers on campus and give them a look at what the schools are doing.
UGA, Georgia Tech and other schools with football programs in Georgia dole out $25,000 to $30,000 or more each football season in tickets and meals to lawmakers and other top state officials, according to lobbyist disclosure reports. The question is whether any gift ban or limit approved by lawmakers would include tickets given to state lawmakers and officials.
"Absolutely, I'd like to see them do away with everything," said Kay Godwin of Georgia Conservatives in Action, part of the coalition pushing for limiting or eliminating lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. Currently there's no limit on lobbyist spending.
But Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who heads a House budget subcommittee on higher education, said there's nothing wrong with schools inviting lawmakers to campus for games. He said he would lean toward putting an exemption for tickets in the bill.
"I think it's a benefit to the schools for the legislators who make decisions on those schools to come to those football games," said Ehrhart, who typically attends one Georgia game each year. "I think they are able to show off the university at those events."
That's the main argument made by colleges, which sometimes spend big money to have legislators on campus. College lobbyists point out that money they spend comes from school fund-raising foundations, not from taxpayers.
UGA and Tech hold "legislative days" at their stadiums each year, which include receptions for lawmakers and their spouses and football.
The schools have pre-game receptions and then host dozens of lawmakers and their spouses to watch football.
While the university system isn't taking a stand on the possible ban on football tickets, Tech lobbyist Dene Sheheane said he is reluctant to take away the chance to have legislators on campus.
"I would hope whatever would be decided would allow public officials to visit campuses, whether that's for a student concert or an athletic event," he said. "We have a lot of legislators who have never been to campus. We are introducing leaders to what is going on," he said.
Sheheane said that on "legislative days," lawmakers meet student leaders and key faculty, along with the school's president.