Dempsey accepted two Atlanta Falcons tickets, worth $274, offered by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.
Meals accounted for the balance, just short of $546, that was reported by seven other lobbyists mainly connected with the health care industry.
A new state ethics law requires lobbyists to file spending reports every two weeks when the General Assembly is in session.
Dempsey said the timely-disclosure rule is “good legislation for transparency,” but reports of expensive dinners or gifts also can be misinterpreted.
“There’s the perception that we go into private discussions about legislation they’re interested in, but that’s really done more in our offices at the Capitol,” she said.
The meals are usually group dinners for committees or lawmakers with shared priorities, she said, and the hosting lobbyists prorate the total bill.
“It doesn’t matter if I order a salad or a steak; they divide the check equally on the reports,” she said.
The football tickets were offered to each member of the General Assembly, Dempsey said, and she took the opportunity to see a game played in the Georgia Dome.
“This year the Falcons are pushing for an outdoor stadium and I wanted to see if there was a great reason for that,” she said. “Some of the legislators went in the fall. I went in January, but I wouldn’t have gone if it was outside. It’s a nice facility.”
Last year lobbyists reported spending a total of $1,763.63 on Dempsey.
She said serving on five committees means there are a lot of meetings, events and other demands on her time — and getting to know people on an informal basis helps build support for initiatives.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution listed her as 10th, by amount received, among lawmakers statewide who accepted gifts from lobbyists in January.
Networking as a tool
“Passing legislation requires relationships,” Dempsey said. “We’re trying to save (Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital; trying to follow the (U.S.) Department of Justice settlement while providing the best care for mental health consumers and making sure job displacements are done fairly. We’re trying to get funding for a tennis center in Rome. … Those are things that get done through networking.”
State Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, said the benefits of the lobby system can work both ways.
The Georgia Farm Bureau typically provides breakfast for the Rural Caucus meeting, along with an update on agricultural issues. The Easter Seal Foundation may seek a lunch with members of the Women’s Caucus sympathetic to children with birth defects.
“It’s not a buy-off, it’s useful interaction,” Reece said. “You learn who are the people you can go to for advice; the people who have researched specific topics. ‘Lobbyist’ is not an ugly word in all cases.”
Reece received meals and gifts totaling $205.44 in 2010.
So far this year, there’s only an $11 newspaper subscription from the Georgia Oilman’s Assoc. for her Atlanta apartment. Reece stays in the city during the week rather than make the 190-mile round trip each day.
State Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, was listed as the recipient of $15.82 in spending in January.
Lobbyists for Charter Communications and the Cable Television Assoc. of Georgia each reported paying $7.42 for a Jan. 27 lunch with Loudermilk and a staffer.
As a House representative, Loudermilk received a total of $448.78 worth of meals in 2010 — mostly lunches. He said he usually heads for home each night, preferring to trade the evening get-togethers for time with his family.
State Rep. Rick Crawford, D-Cedartown, did not net any lobbyist attention in January. Reports indicate he received $155.70 in meals and campaign contributions last year.
Crawford did not return calls for comment.
Freshman state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, was the recipient of an $8.48 “Meat & 2 and a 20-ounce water at Twin Towers Café,” reported by Tom Gehl of the Georgia Municipal Association.
He also got $50 worth of attention last year, as a candidate or House member-elect.
Lobbyists from Resurgens Orthopaedics and the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia bought him lunches in October. After he won the election, a member of the lobbying firm Georgia 360 hosted him for lunch in December.
While there are calls this session for tougher state ethics laws, Coomer said he sides with the faction that believes last year’s legislation is too tough.
“I’ve been getting e-mails and calls from people upset with the requirements,” he said. “Folks back home who are politically active are worried that if they spend $100 on gas and meals to come to the capitol and tell their representatives what they think, they have crossed the line to become a lobbyist.”
Coomer said there also are concerns the new law could require anyone who does business with any government entity to register as a lobbyist — a potential problem when the part-time legislators return to their private-sector jobs.
The law excludes personal spending on travel, food and lodging when calculating the “lobbyist line,” and mentions only state government entities in the vendor-lobbyist definition.
Still, interpretation will likely be a big part of the debate this session and Coomer said some of the provisions are unnecessarily restrictive and burdensome.
“Ultimately, ethical people don’t need ethics rules and the unethical people will find a way around the rules,” he said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any, but to think that creating a new set of ethics laws will create ethical behavior is unreasonable.”