Like fleas on a hounddog, influence-money jumps all over politicians who have the most power.
With that in mind, this years spending by lobbyists in Georgia sends the message loud and clear about whos hot and whos not in local legislative delegations.
Hottest is state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, the chairman of Columbia Countys delegation: Lobbyists spent more wining and dining Harbin during the 2003 session than they did for his fellow Columbia County lawmakers combined. As ranking Republican on the powerful House Insurance Committee, and one of the top lawmakers in the House, Harbin has worked his way into a position of legislative influence.
On the cold-cuts end of the spectrum, Richmond delegation member state Rep. Alberta Anderson, D-Waynesboro, barely got a Coke and a hotdog from lobbyists with just $33 reported for the session. Thats less than a fourth of the Legislatures daily reimbursement rate, and its an accurate reflection of Andersons status as a political nobody.
The contrasts arent just about perceptions, but results: Harbin sponsored or co-sponsored 10 bills that were signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who signed only 150 bills from all lawmakers. Anderson, meanwhile, sponsored or cosponsored just 10 dead-end bills, six of them resolutions commending some person or event.
Its easy, under these circumstances, to understand why lobbyists spent $2,335 on meals and goodies for Harbin this session, and why lackluster lawmakers dined on their own dime.
A couple of years ago, when criticized for lobbyist-funded meals, Harbin promised to cut back. The spending instead went up slightly the next year, but then plummeted in 2002 when lobbyists instead poured money into competitive political campaigns.
Then came this years unique session. In addition to running longer than any in history, the 2003 session represented the historic switch to a two-party system in the Legislature. The switch came, in part, because of the 26 freshmen Republicans elected; and as a member of the leadership in the Capitol, Harbin was obligated to spend much of his after-hours time getting to know those new lawmakers.
Who picks up the tab for those dinners and receptions? Thankfully, not taxpayers. Lobbyists want to get to know those new members, too, and to cement friendly relationships with veterans; their companies or causes pick up the tab. I would love for it to be a chance to relax, says Harbin, who points out that the get-togethers often come at the end of long legislative days. Its working, believe me. Its the price of leadership.
Whatever the rationale for such spending, the director of a state watchdog group says it gives the perception that theres government for sale. Hes right to the extent that constituents are given an image of fat-cat politicians puffing expensive cigars lit with lobbyists $100 bills.
To help fight that perception, Harbin should cash in on his effectiveness as a lawmaker by working next year to overcome Democrats objections and pass Perdues ethics reforms - including a stricter cap on lobbyists spending.
In the meantime, Harbin and fellow lawmakers should take personal responsibility for picking up the tab sometimes or pushing back from the table. It doesnt even take a powerful politician to do so - as Alberta Anderson demonstrates.
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