Last November, Gov. Sonny Perdue and a staff member were flown by private jet to Austin, Texas, site of the 2009 Republican Governors Association meeting, and then home.
The $5,000 flight was provided courtesy of the thoughtful folks at Altria, the nation’s largest tobacco company. And that was hardly the only example of Altria’s altruism.
A few months earlier, an Altria lobbyist kicked in $387 to buy a nice dinner for Perdue and three staffers at the Beau Rivage Casino in Mississippi, site of the National Governors Association meeting.
In early February, the company spent $7,445 on a dinner for members of the state House and Senate agriculture committees. And late last year, an Altria lobbyist spent $437.71 for “hunting trip/relationship building at Southern Woods Plantation” on behalf of state Rep. David Knight. (That was just half of Knight’s bill — a second lobbyist covered the rest.)
Of course, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the gift from Altria has influenced Knight’s decision-making as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the tax-writing panel. Nor is there evidence that the rather lavish dinner for agriculture committee members swayed their thinking about Altria and its interests.
And certainly, when it came time for Perdue to draw up a budget for 2011, the generosity and hospitality shown by Altria had no discernible impact on the governor’s decisions.
True, a tobacco tax increase of $1 a pack would raise a badly needed $355 million and help discourage smoking. It is also true that Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas, among others, already have boosted tobacco taxes to raise revenue.
But if Perdue chose not to take that course — he decided to tax hospitals instead — surely he had his reasons.
On the other hand, it would appear that the folks at Altria have reason to believe otherwise. They are spending money in this fashion because they think it will pay off, just as they hope that the $35,532 that Altria spent last month in Georgia on “grass-roots lobbying” will have an impact. (Thirty-five grand can buy a lot of fertilizer for those anti-tax grass roots.)
Under Georgia law, gifts to legislators are perfectly legal as long as they are not part of an explicit deal. In the executive branch, while Perdue issued an order in 2003 banning acceptance of gifts by state employees, he has clearly found ways of evading it himself when he’d rather fly corporate than commercial, where he might rub elbows with actual Georgians who pay his salary.
That’s the other part ofthe problem. Yes, lobbyists provide gifts for legislators and public officials in hopes that the favor would be returned. But it also has another insidious effect.
The wooing and courting by lobbyists tend to elevate public officials in their own minds, confirming their distance above the common people they are supposed to represent. It is the job of the lobbyists to make their targets feel special, and they are all too good at it.
Not everyone, for example, gets treated to a free hunting trip at Southern Woods, “accompanied by our professional hunting guides and a selection of our well-trained hunting dogs as you pursue the native bobwhite quail.”
Apparently, such gifts will be allowed to continue. According to Rep. Joe Wilkinson, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, “reform” legislation introduced in the General Assembly won’t even limit gifts.
That’s amazing. Even Congress, which has an approval rating of 16 percent, has been wise enough to ban gifts and trips for its members and staff. But here in Georgia, the General Assembly can’t bring itself to take that step. Apparently, they feel as though they’re entitled.