Georgia Lobbyists: Here’s The Buzz
The election of Sonny Perdue as governor in the 2002 election hit the Golden Dome’s community of lobbyists with all the devastating impact of a 5,000-pound “Bunker Buster” bomb.
No one had figured that Perdue would upset Roy Barnes and end 130 years of Democratic rule in the governor’s office. While a few people had made token contributions to the Houston County Republican, the lobbyists (and everyone else) had put their serious money down on Barnes.
“There is a great deal of scrambling going on by representatives of these different centers to have some access,” former attorney general Mike Bowers, one of Perdue’s closest advisers, said at the time in describing the near-panic among lobbyists in the wake of that shocking election result.
On the surface, there were reasons to be worried. Perdue had won election without the financial support of the “big mules” who traditionally fund Georgia’s political campaigns. He had also, during his tenure in the state Senate, tried several times to pass ethics legislation that would stop the “revolving door” through which legislators and state agency heads moved easily between government jobs and well-paid lobbying engagements.
“The relationships one develops while you serve in this body or as a department head, those relationships can be unfairly used,” Perdue complained in 1999.
As it turned out, lobbyists and their clients didn’t really have to worry.
An early indication came during Perdue’s first year as governor when lobbyists from the banking and financial services industries crowded the capitol’s 19th-century halls to overturn a predatory lending law that had been pushed through in the 2002 General Assembly session by Roy Barnes and his House floor leader, Rep. Charlie Smith of St. Marys.
The new law had been enacted to protect low-income and elderly homeowners from losing their houses to unscrupulous lenders and was considered one of the toughest in the nation (Georgia has traditionally regulated the financial industry with a very light touch). With a Republican in the governor’s office, financial industry lobbyists started their big pushback against the predatory lending statute.
They quickly found a welcome ally in the new governor whose election had created such high levels of anxiety only three months before. When the bill rolling back consumer protections got bogged down in the Senate, Perdue called individual senators into his office to do some old-fashioned “arm-twisting,” in the words of one lawmaker, and persuade them to vote for the measure.
Perdue’s Senate floor leader, Sen. Bill Stephens, also told his colleagues during floor debate that a letter would be coming over the fax machine in the governor’s office detailing how national mortgage lender Freddie Mac would pull its money out of Georgia if the bill wasn’t adopted.
By the time the ballyhooed Freddie Mac letter actually arrived, it said no such thing. “It never was our intention to stage a liquidity crisis, to weaken the provisions of GAFLA [the predatory lending law], nor to become a pawn in Georgia’s political process,” a Freddie Mac official wrote.
No matter. By that time, the Senate had already passed the bill removing the consumer protections, and Perdue had proudly signed it as the first piece of legislation enacted during his administration.
That was just the first of several signs that indicated how comfortable Perdue is with lobbyists for the business community. Both of his chiefs of staff have lobbying backgrounds, and he recently hired another lobbyist, John Bozeman, to handle legislative affairs for the governor’s office. Perdue has accepted airplane rides, NASCAR tickets and dinners from lobbyists, even though he signed an executive order imposing a gift ban on members of his own staff. When several oil industry lobbyists suggested that public schools be temporarily closed to make sure there would be a sufficient supply of diesel fuel for Georgia’s farmers, Perdue prevailed upon local educators to shut down classes for two days.
The Republican takeover of the governor’s office, followed by the GOP assumption of control in the state Senate and House of Representatives, has enhanced an atmosphere at the capitol that was always receptive to those who represent the state’s business and industrial interests. During the 1990s, after all, the Democratic legislature passed and Democratic governors signed a series of bills that provided millions of dollars worth of tax exemptions to various business and agricultural segments.
The Welcome Mat
The new Republican majorities have put out a welcome mat to the business community that’s even more inviting. During the most recent legislative session, while they were reducing the state’s formula funding for local schools by more than $300 million, lawmakers were also passing a bill that provided a corporate tax break worth an estimated $100 million a year for Georgia companies like Coca-Cola and Georgia-Pacific. They adopted landmark legislation – quickly signed by Perdue – that makes it more difficult for individuals to sue physicians and hospitals for medical malpractice; a bill long sought by the health care and insurance industry lobbyists.
“The old Democratic leadership was very business-oriented,” says a lobbyist who’s worked the halls of the capitol for more than 20 years. “Under the Republicans, it’s gone from good to unbelievably good.”
That means it’s business as usual for the lobbyists – about 1,200 are now registered with the state – who buttonhole Georgia’s elected officials to make their case for either passing a favored bill or stopping a measure that’s considered harmful to a client.
Business lobbyists now, as always, spend lots of money to make campaign contributions and provide entertainment for legislators, although it would be difficult to top the celebrated trip to Daufuskie Island that a lobbyist provided for a group of legislators a decade ago – an outing that included golf, liquid refreshments and the companionship of four young ladies from Atlanta’s Cheetah III topless nightclub.
“There’s a perception among the public that lobbyist is a dirty word,” sighs Terry Mathews, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn who now lobbies the General Assembly with another onetime Nunn staffer, Scott Maxwell.
“State legislators use lobbyists as a resource to gain an understanding of legislative issues, or things that could become issues,” Maxwell said during a joint interview with his lobbying associate at their office near capitol hill. “The legislators have to depend on lobbyists to help them understand the issues.”
One reason for the prominent role lobbyists play in formulating policy is that Georgia still has, at least officially, a part-time legislature with a relatively small number of staffers to conduct research on important issues (although the Republican leadership is now beefing up the support staff).
“The staffers are good, but it’s a matter of resources,” Mathews says. “When several committees are sharing one staff person, there’s only so much they can do. In Washington, lobbyists deal mainly with the congressional staff. Down here, they deal with the individual legislators.”
The new Republican majorities have resulted in an infusion of new blood into the lobbyist community, with more GOP-oriented activists and consultants moving to the forefront. Mike Bowers formed a successful public affairs firm with John Watson after Perdue’s election. Bowers now vets candidates for judgeships as the chairman of Perdue’s Judicial Nominating Commission while Watson serves as the governor’s chief of staff.
The lobbying firm is still humming nicely, thanks to the efforts of Bowers’ son, Bruce Bowers, and Lewis Massey, a Democrat and former secretary of state. Rusty Paul, a former GOP legislator and Republican Party chairman, is now a major player among lobbyists as is another former lawmaker, Dan Lee, who works with Chuck McMullen and the Southern Strategy Group.
Most of the capitol’s business lobbyists work on one-year contracts, under which they are paid retainers by their clients that typically range from $2,000 to $6,000 a month, depending on the client and the type of work to be done. A nonprofit organization with limited resources might hire a lobbyist to work for a retainer of $2,000 a month during the three to four months that the legislature is in session.
A New Breed
An example of the new breed of young, Republican-oriented lobbyists is Clint Austin, 33, who got into politics by running campaigns for several Republican candidates over the past few election cycles. Austin initially formed a lobbying business with Rusty Paul after Perdue’s election but now runs his own shop, representing clients such as Pfizer and the Georgia Hospital Association.
Even if some of the names and faces have changed, lobbying is still a matter of providing sound information and making the best policy case that you can for your clients, Austin says.
“To the outside world, lobbying looks like influence peddling,” he says. “But to us, it’s an information game, both ways. You do that in good faith and you provide good information to legislators and your clients, because if you didn’t, you might get away with it one time, but you wouldn’t get away with it a second time or a third time. You will lie one time, but you will not lie a second time.”
The GOP leadership has changed some internal rules and procedures to make the legislative session run more quickly, with more detail work on bills and resolutions being done at the committee and subcommittee level. That has been a welcome change to some lobbyists
“The process was efficient, it was quick, they didn’t drag on and on and on in committee meetings,” says lobbyist Freddi Hagin, describing the most recent General Assembly session. “Time is money for all of us. We got in there, business got handled, and we got out. It’s just a quicker, easier process.”
Georgia’s lobbying community includes many people who represent nonprofits and charities, civic groups and organizations that try to get a small piece of the state budget for low-income children and families. Their task has always been more difficult because they don’t have the financial resources of the lobbyists who represent big business.
“The first year of having a Republican House and Senate – not unexpected – it was payback time and the corporate interests who had been supportive and had good relationships with the new majority were there and first in line,” says Larry Pellegrini of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit. “You can be a player if you have a PAC [political action committee], if you have the means to give financial support. That’s where nonprofits are at a decided disadvantage. We have a lot less of that.”
Lobbyists for nonprofits also have to work with legislative leadership that is more conservative and, in some cases, more ideologically oriented than past leadership has been.
“It feels to me, on more of a deeper level, that there’s just not as much concern for women and low-income family issues, as opposed to their concern for big business,” says a lobbyist who does not represent large corporate clients. “I’ve had to resort to saying, ‘This isn’t Christian, this isn’t moral.’ I’m offended by the way religion has been inculcated in public life and I don’t like to play that game; but right now, I feel I have no choice.”
“We all understand that entities with lots of money have the ability to pay lobbyists fantastic amounts of money,” says Bill Bozarth, Georgia director of Common Cause. “That’s not a level playing field.”
Even so, Bozarth notes that Georgia, compared to other states, has “pretty good” laws that require lobbyists to disclose who their clients are and how much money is spent by a lobbyist on the officials he entertains. The information is there for candidates who choose to use it and voters who bother to take note of it, he said.
“We’ve made a little progress,” Bozarth says. “I would not use the word corrupt – that’s just the way the system works.”
It’s a system that has been productive for Georgia’s business community and could be even more so in future legislative sessions. One indication came floating out last summer when the governmental affairs committee for one of the state’s largest business organizations held a conference at St. Simons. The agenda included a panel discussion made up of legislative leaders who gave business representatives the typical heads-up they usually provide about the upcoming legislative session.
One of the lawmakers also offered the business leaders these words of assurance: “If you thought this past year was a good session for business, just wait till next year.”