Looking for gold under the Dome
“Don’t Tell Momma I’m A Lobbyist, She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Bordello,” or words to the similar adorned a button that made the rounds at the State Capitol a few years back. Although funny, it really did capture the tone that many people may hear when the “L Word” is mentioned. Exactly what is a lobbyist and what do they do? When my friend and fellow Rotarian Pat Cavannaugh (yes they do allow lobbyists in Rotary) talked about this a while back, he thought it might be interesting to have readers take a look at things under the Gold Dome from a different set of eyes. Now that the Georgia General Assembly is in session, let’s view the legislative process from an insider’s viewpoint.
As I begin my 25th year working in this mostly misunderstood profession, it’s important for readers to understand more about both the process and what you can do to become more involved in the final product that comes out of Atlanta. I’ll cover ways to become a better informed “non-lobbyist” in a future article.
What exactly is a lobbyist? They come in all sizes and in Georgia there are usually about 1,000 or more of them registered to lobby at any one time. Just like the legislators they are seeking to influence and inform, most are part-time, working as association executives or performing other non-lobbying duties much of the year. However, when the second Monday in January rolls around each year, we slap on our lobbying badge and head to the Capitol.
Do we need lobbyists? While my answer might seem self-serving, the answer is YES. The Georgia General Assembly is both large and part-time. We have 180 House and 56 Senate members. Even if each member only submitted a few bills, it means that more than 1,000 pieces of legislation are introduced. Did I mention that the legislature is part-time? Unlike D.C., with its hordes of staff and support, things are much different in Atlanta. Legislators have minimal if any personal staff/aides and the research staff is also small.
As a result, lobbyists are often the “go-to” source for information when legislation is introduced. Last year, for instance, our organization was involved in helping to spot a $11 million error on a proposed fee, because we understood that the frequency for which the fee was based was wrong. The legislation actually passed one chamber before it was discovered and corrected.
What about all the “hankypanky” you read about?
The vast majority of lobbyists are simply, like you, doing their jobs and seeking to represent their organizations or causes to the best of their ability. Whether it be lobbyists or mega-churches, only the bad apples seem to get the ink.
How do I know what is really going on?
Despite the saying, “There are two things you should never see made – sausage and legislation,” the reality is that as an active and informed citizen you really do have an opportunity to stay on top of what is happening at the General Assembly between now and when the session concludes its 40 legislative days. It takes a little work, but technology has made it so much easier to keep abreast of the process.
In a future article, I’ll cover how to do this and some of the do’s and don’ts of affecting your elected officials. Democracy is not a spectator sport, whether you lobby for a living or not.