Tuesday December 1st, 2015 1:23PM

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."
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