Today is the first full day of action in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It puts me in the mind of the Georgia Legislature — and not because they call the tournament “March Madness.”
Two years ago, when a $100 limit on lobbyist gifts was proposed, I asked a House committee chairman to explain why he opposed it. He recounted this story:
The last time the Final Four was in Atlanta (2007), by late March he’d worked a lot of late hours away from the family. As he walked toward the exit one night, a lobbyist passing by held out a pair of tickets and suggested he take his son to a game.
As one might expect, they had a grand time. Looking back, he told me, he wouldn’t have wanted to deprive his son of that experience they had together. A $100 gift limit, you see, would have left father and son to watch the game at home or pay their own way.
Remember: This was his defense of $100-plus gifts.
Lest you think this was a one-off scenario, the online records of the agency once known as the State Ethics Commission reveal that 15 legislators avoided such NCAA deprivation.
Well, at least 15: In light of the protests from legislators who say all we need is transparency, it’s worth noting this particular chairman’s name was not listed on the website. An oversight, perhaps. I wonder if there were any other such slip-ups.
Besides the transparency line, another thing some Capitol denizens would have you believe is that sneaky, tassel-loafered lobbyists are liable to come upon an unsuspecting legislator at any moment and shove a ticket or $300 meal down his or her throat.
Around this time last year, I was in a social setting with a lobbyist who, within a few hours, relayed to me maybe half a dozen unsolicited requests from legislators asking about tickets to this ballgame or that concert. (It didn’t occur to me to start counting until the bulletins had become fairly regular.)
Then, on Monday, I was standing next to a Senate staffer when a powerful senator walked up. He told her he deserved “credit” for pledging to get her tickets — he didn’t say to what, or from whom — had her favorite team only advanced further in last weekend’s ACC basketball tournament at Philips Arena. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get the impression this oft-lobbied senator was going to dig into his own per diem to buy the tickets.
I chose not to name names in these instances for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that there’s no point in making this about particular personalities. This is not a matter of a few bad apples. I’m not sure most of them would consider this practice rotten, even if citizens might think their lawmakers are spoiled.
According to my review of the ethics commission’s data, since 2008 an average of 156 legislators a year — almost two-thirds of them — have accepted tickets from lobbyists to some kind of event (not counting those related to politics or policy).
Braves games, Falcons games, Bulldogs games, Yellow Jackets games, Hawks games, Thrashers games, concerts, plays, dance performances, comedy shows, the circus, the zoo, the aquarium. There’s something to appeal to everyone.
What appeals to the lobbyists is your guess. Of 1,990 ticket-related items since 2008, a grand total of 15 of them — less than eight-tenths of 1 percent — specified a bill name or number which was discussed. These tickets cost a grand total of $350,156. No one believes the purchasers spent that kind of money just because they didn’t have time during the day to ask Mr. Chairman how the kids have been doing.
Then again, maybe that transparency failure is just as well, in light of this one: With 33 of the session’s 40 days past us, not one lobbyist report mentioning the word “ticket” is available yet on the ethics commission’s website.
The Falcons played just one home game in January, but have our legislators been deprived each of the 16 times the Hawks have played here? Did 10 home games apiece for UGA and Georgia Tech (bad as those teams were) have no appeal? Did the ACC tournament get no legislator love?
Well, the Thrashers did leave town. Maybe that explains the apparent ticketlessness.
Ethics reform efforts appear stalled for this year, but supporters vow to keep at it. One possibility is a committee to study best practices around the nation and propose legislation in 2013. Even this relatively tame measure, however, has opposition.
After all, the Final Four is back in town next spring.
– By Kyle Wingfield