Writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution [1 Jan. 2016: A,1], Chris Joyner and Aaron Gould Sheinin have reported on the unusual aspects of how Georgia universities lobby state legislators. Their article, “AJC at the Gold Dome: University Lobbyists Spend Big on State Lawmakers,” details not only the practices of the lobbyists but the reasons why those practices have remained largely free from oversight.
Joyner and Sheinin open their article with the following paragraphs:
“When former University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt coached his Bulldogs past the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in his final game Nov. 28, there was practically a full committee of state lawmakers in the stands.
“The lobbyist for Georgia Tech gave free tickets to the game to a dozen state lawmakers, including the six members of the House Appropriations Committee, which allocates the university system’s budget, and Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, a Georgia Tech grad and vice chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
“In all, the Georgia Tech lobbyist gave out $2,250 worth of free tickets that day to state officials, part of about $52,000 university system lobbyists spent in meals, tickets, golf games and assorted trinkets this year. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the lobbyists for Georgia Power, UPS and Home Depot spent–combined.
“But while lobbyists are required to report gifts given to public officials to the state ethics commission, none of that was publicly reported because a 2013 ethics ‘reform’ passed by the General Assembly specifically excluded government lobbyists.
“That law set the first-ever limits on what lobbyists could spend on legislators and other government officials, establishing a $75 cap on individual gifts and specifically outlawing pure entertainment gifts like athletic tickets. But the law changed the way lobbyists working for universities and other state agencies were viewed, exempting them entirely from the law for the first time.”
The House Speaker who spearheaded this legislation explained the exemption in this way in 2014: “’These state employees serve as an informational resource to legislators on matters pertaining to state government operations which occasionally may include meetings or site visits to public institutions.’”
The spokesman for the University System of Georgia has offered essentially the same explanation: “’Hosting campus visits, which includes athletics events, are an appropriate part of what we do to provide information and firsthand experiences about our institutions, programs and support of our students.’”
He added that “all of the money spent by university system lobbyists came from the foundations of the various schools ‘with no taxpayer dollars used.’”
Joyner and Sheinin note that “as a result, universities with wealthier foundations appear to have a leg up on smaller schools[, with] UGA and Georgia Tech account[ing] for nearly 70 cents of every dollar spent by university lobbyists in 2015.”
What the reporters don’t state explicitly but what is very clear is that the legislators very much enjoy attending the games of these very high-profile football teams and that attending those games is important enough to the legislators that it gives the lobbyists providing the tickets very real leverage on legislation. But, just as clearly, attending those games conveys, in itself, almost nothing about the broader institutions to the legislators, except perhaps that they are very large institutions with big-time athletics programs.
The reporters add:
“While claiming special status, what university lobbyists do looks strikingly similar to what any other lobbyist does. They show up to the Capitol every day during the legislative session, work the same rope lines outside the chambers for lawmakers’ attention, fight for scraps out of the same state budget trough, and ply legislators with food and drink like any private sector lobbyists. But they don’t have to play by the same rules.
“Still, private lobbyists are reluctant to complain too loudly.
“The universities, in particular UGA and Georgia Tech, are powerful and influential. Lobbyists interviewed for this story were wary of angering the university system or its powerful backers in the General Assembly.”
At this point, you are probably thinking that I am completely appalled by this lobbying. And you would have been right about my attitude if not for the following paragraphs:
“’I watched the power of the lobbyists of the Board of Regents two years ago when we passed that 2nd Amendment bill and they lobbied,’ extensively, Powell, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said.
“Sweeping gun legislation passed in 2014 would have allowed licensed owners to carry firearms on to college campuses. The university system successfully fought to have that portion taken out of the bill.”
Just to be clear, the loophole on university lobbying allowed the universities in Georgia to prevent what the universities in Texas could not prevent.
Very clearly, even a corrupt system can sometimes produce favorable outcomes.
Joyner and Sheinin’s article is available at: http://www.myajc.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/university-lobbyists-spend-big-on-state-lawmakers/nptYC/.