Friday May 27th, 2016 12:21PM

Seeking influence, Ga. governments hire lobbyists

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) -- If residents want to influence state policy, they call their Georgia lawmaker. When local governments want influence, they hire a lobbyist.

State lawmakers are supposed to represent their hometown interests in the General Assembly, which started its annual 40-day session this month. Even so, local governments spend thousands of dollars hiring lobbyists so they can get money for sidewalks, boats and tourist trolleys, and fight proposals that hurt financially. Most of that spending is clustered around metro Atlanta, though Fulton County recently decided the costs of its program were too high.

This month, the Fulton County Commission voted to eliminate its lobbying department and ended contracts with outside lobbyists, freeing up around $400,000. The commissioners say they'll work with lawmakers on legislation that affects home.

"We're our best lobbyists - I don't disagree with that," Fulton Commissioner Robb Pitts said during a Jan. 9 debate. "That being the case, why would we spend one penny paying someone to do it?"

The lobbying targeted by Pitts focuses on very local needs and goes beyond the advocacy of statewide associations of municipal or county leaders. Fulton's former lobbyist, Mike Vaquer, who made roughly $130,000 last year, said lobbyists provide a needed service. Vaquer said he successfully fought proposals that would have carved away part of Fulton into another county and blocked tax changes that would have reduced revenues.

"Legislators have multiple constituencies to represent," he said. "And governments retain private counsel, lobbyists, to be places they can't be and provide information that they just physically can't get on a consistent basis."

In the end, county officials decided it was not worth the cost.

"Back in the old days, we did it ourselves," Commissioner Tom Lowe told his colleagues. "We'd look at the doggone bills and if it had a special interest in it, we'd take it on."

Communities large and small get involved in the Statehouse influence game. In 2011, the small north Georgia communities of Helen, Lula and Cumming hired lobbyist Mike Evans, a former state lawmaker, to pursue funding for projects benefiting pedestrians, including sidewalks and biking trails. Evans, a former member of the State Board of Transportation, now focuses mostly on transportation lobbying. His clients also include Forsyth County.

"Like anything, maybe you're not big enough to have a person who will do it - you outsource it," Evans said.

In the northern suburbs of Atlanta, Cobb County sought proposals last year from lobbyists willing to represent its interests to the state or federal government. Instead of immediately hiring a lobbyist, the county will take six months to consider what sort of assistance it wants, said Tim Lee, chairman of the county commission. He estimated the program may cost $50,000 to $100,000.

Lee said local lawmakers have told him that if Cobb hires a lobbyist, that lobbyist should be focused on influencing lawmakers from elsewhere in the state.

"Their opinion is that I should not hire a lobbyist to try to influence my local delegation - that should be my responsibility," he said.

Since 1997, Savannah has paid lobbyist Jim Burgess to pursue its interests in the Legislature. He'll earn $50,000 for his efforts this year.

Burgess said he expects to fight a proposal to limit local authority over where cellphone towers are placed, a particular concern for Savannah's historic district that draws tourists to the coast. The city is also seeking $1.3 million for a fireboat. In the past, Burgess said he helped secure funding to extend the city's riverwalk and worked on the annexation of Hutchinson Island.

"It adds up to a fair amount of money versus my compensation," Burgess said.

Savannah taxpayers' money isn't being wasted on a lobbyist, said Tom Bordeaux, a Savannah city councilman who served 16 years in the state House until 2007.

At the Capitol, Bordeaux was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a job that made him an expert on criminal law and courts. But when it came to issues important to his home city - be it tax policy or water and sewer issues - it helped for Savannah to have its own lobbyist to help him grasp the details, Bordeaux said.

"As a legislator it's demanded of you that you be a master of all trades," Bordeaux said. "And we all know how that comes out: You can't."
© Copyright 2016
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Missing Ga. bank director arrested in Brunswick
A bank director accused of losing millions of investors' dollars before vanishing last year was arrested Tuesday during a traffic stop in a city in south Georgia.
7:00PM ( 2 years ago )
S&P 500 index has its best year since 1997
The stock market closed out a record year with more all-time highs on Tuesday, giving U.S. indexes their biggest annual gains in almost two decades.
6:56PM ( 2 years ago )
Colorado readies for 'Green Wednesday' pot sales
Police were adding extra patrols around pot shops in eight Colorado towns that plan to allow recreational sales to anyone over 21 on Jan. 1.
1:52PM ( 2 years ago )
Business News
Sex offender held in Hall County for failing to register
A 47-year-old man was booked into the Hall County Jail Tuesday, being held without bond for allegedly failing to register as a sex offender, his second such arrest.
6:09PM ( 2 years ago )
Pharmacy robberies may involve same suspect
Oakwood Police Tuesday afternoon released details in a pharmacy robbery they're investigating, similar to one that happened in the Hall County Tuesday morning.
5:46PM ( 2 years ago )
Victim critical following apartment fire
A 41-year-old woman was in critical but stable condition Tuesday after being rescued from an apartment fire in Forsyth County late Monday afternoon.
3:16PM ( 2 years ago )
Local/State News
Medicaid growth creates gap of 5M without coverage; 409K in Ga.
About 5 million people will be without health care next year that they would have gotten simply if they lived somewhere else in America.
7:30AM ( 2 years ago )
Vandals spray graffiti against Kerry in West Bank
Suspected Jewish vandals set fire to three vehicles in a West Bank village early on Tuesday and sprayed threatening graffiti referring to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of his expected visit to the region, police said.
7:28AM ( 2 years ago )
Feds announce test sites for drone aircraft
The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the march of the unmanned aircraft into U.S. skies.
2:23PM ( 2 years ago )
Unicoi offering aerial adventure park beginning Thursday
Just in time for summer, Unicoi State Park and Lodge has rolled out its new aerial adventure park.
3:03PM ( 2 days ago )
Businesses network with customers, each other during White County expo
About three dozen businesses from White County and the surrounding area showcased their services and the products they provide during the 2016 White County Chamber of Commerce Business Expo held Thursday.
9:30PM ( 4 days ago )
Flowery Branch gives first reading okay to rezoning for senior housing complex, approves city hall financing plan
The Flowery Branch City Council gave first reading approval to a rezoning request for a 7.1-acre tract on East Main Street that could lead to the construction of a 60-unit multi-family senior housing affordable-living complex.
11:41PM ( 1 week ago )
Greater Hall Chamber hosts ribbon-cutting for Discover-E Strategies, LLC
The Greater Hall County Chamber Commerce hosted a ribbon cutting Wednesday for a new company in Hall County called Discover-E.
By AccessWDUN Staff
7:52PM ( 1 week ago )
Lula officials say they're on track for alcohol votes in November
The Lula City Council is looking to put several alcohol issues before the public for a vote in November.
3:02PM ( 1 week ago )