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Chris Joyner

Tickets please: Lawmakers rake in freebies from universities

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When state lawmakers reluctantly agreed two years ago to the first-ever limits on lobbyist gifts, they made sure to include a bunch of loopholes.

One of the most popular is that government employees are not considered lobbyists, including those working for state universities who are among the most active lobbyists at the Capitol. In fact, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2014 that making these lobbyists register and publicly report their spending would be “crazy.”

“They are there (at the statehouse) on the state’s business. They are going to take care of their agency’s budget. I think it’s crazy that we required them to register as lobbyists,” he said. “They are advocating for their cause, and their cause is their school.”

Coincidentally, England, R-Auburn, is at the top of the list for receiving goodies from these lobbyists, with at least $750 in gifts, mostly in the form of football tickets and golf outings paid for by the University of Georgia. England, a UGA graduate, attended four of eight Bulldog home games in 2015. Last year, he and his wife attended five.

Closely following England is Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who hit up the Georgia Tech lobbyist for most of his $690 tab in 2015.

November 28, 2015 Atlanta - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive back Lynn Griffin (27) is taken by Georgia Bulldogs defenders in the first half at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, November 28, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The Nov. 28 Georgia-Georgia Tech football game was a hot ticket for lawmakers. Thanks to university lobbyists, many got to attend for free. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Most of Benton’s tickets went toward Georgia Tech basketball games played during the legislative session last winter and spring, including $320 worth of tickets to see Tech lose badly to North Carolina last March 3. Benton also was one a number of lawmakers who tapped the Georgia Tech lobbyist for free tickets to see the Georgia-Georgia Tech football game in November.

For the record, Benton went to West Georgia and Brenau universities. He serves on the House Appropriations and Rules committees.

In all, lobbyists representing various state universities and colleges spent at least $52,000 on meals, tickets, golf games and other items to get their message to state officials — mostly in the Legislature.

Lobbyists for Georgia and Georgia Tech accounted for more than two-thirds of that spending, mostly in free athletic tickets.

Unlike their private-sector counterparts, university lobbyists do not have adhere to the $75 gift cap or the prohibition against pure entertainment gifts, like athletic tickets or golf. It also means they don’t have to register as lobbyists or report what they spend on public officials, like lawmakers, for instance.

To figure out how much these lobbyists are spending to woo other state officials, you have to file a public records request. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did that and found at least $52,000 spent during 2015. You can read that story here.

Legislators are coming back next week to start the 2016 session where they will have a chance to renew their acquaintance with the university officials.

University lobbyists defend the current law by saying the trips to see football games provides lawmakers with a chance to visit state campuses and talk policy. That’s not dissimilar to the rational corporate lobbyists used for years to justify their unlimited spending on lawmakers that such spending gave them the chance to hash out important topics over a fancy meal or a NASCAR weekend in Talladega.

University lobbyists also point out that they use foundation money, not regular tax money, for their gifts.