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State Affairs presents the annual Georgia Golden Fork awards to Georgia lawmakers
Editor’s note: We compiled lobbyist spending data on 237 state legislators (181 in the House of Representatives and 56 in the Senate) rather than the standard 236, including one extra legislator due to one representative resigning and another taking his place during 2022. Both of those legislators were factored into the data.
State Affairs is kicking off its inaugural Golden Fork Awards, reporting on gifts to Georgia legislators from lobbyists and the organizations they represent. Our report furthers an annual tradition begun by our State Affairs Pro news bureau in Kansas of bestowing the Golden Fork and other awards to lawmakers who receive the most hospitality gifts each year.
We combed through hundreds of reports by lobbyists to the state’s ethics commission, officially the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, from Jan. 1, 2022, to Dec. 31, 2022, and determined which legislators received the most freebies, including meals, lodging, travel accommodations and other gifts. Below you’ll find a list showing how much every lawmaker received, and also some reporting on the organizations that paid the most for access to Georgia lawmakers.
It’s important to note that our findings only include spending on legislators that lobbyists are required by law to report. Since Georgia enacted a new ethics law in 2013, individual lobbyists are limited to spending $75 per lawmaker per event, but they can pool their funds with other lobbyists to spend more on individual lawmakers, legislative committees, political party caucuses or on events where all legislators are invited.
And they often do just that. Lobbyists spent nearly $600,000 providing food and drink, swag bags, conference fees, and other gifts to Georgia lawmakers at group gatherings last year. They were not required to identify which legislators received those goodies, and for the most part, they did not.
This report focuses primarily on gifts made by lobbyists to individual lawmakers, which totaled $336,502 in 2022. That included about $240,000 for meals and drinks, $90,000 for lodging at hotels and resorts, $2,250 for travel, and $4,000 for other gifts.
Golden Fork & Best Fed Man
Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe, wins the Golden Fork Award for receiving the most food, drink, lodging and other hospitality in 2022. He also wins our designation for Best Fed Man.
Williamson sits atop the list of 237 state legislators who received hospitality gifts reported during 2022 to the ethics commission. Lobbyists reported spending $9,083 on hospitality specifically for Williamson and his family, including meals, drinks, and hotel stays. The 237 legislators included an additional name due to one representative resigning and another taking his place in 2022. Both of those legislators are included in this report.
Attendance at gatherings with private associations, some at swanky seaside locales, account for more than half of Williamson’s tally.
The Georgia Bankers Association treated Williamson to $2,024 in accommodations during its annual meeting at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Florida, in June, followed by the annual convention of the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association, which paid for $1,842 in food and hotel accommodations. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce spent $725 on Williamson during its spring government affairs conference at The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort in St. Simons, while the Medical Association of Georgia paid $500 to cover his stay at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa in South Carolina during its two-day “educational meeting and dinner.”
Williamson, who laughed upon learning of his Golden Fork award, said his first reaction was to make sure that people know that “Vickie, my wife of 40 years, was by my side constantly at these events, and you know, she’s getting a meal, too.” He said he has learned that he’s “more engaged and effective as a leader … when we work together as a team to serve the citizens of Walton County.”
A banking professional by trade, and the current Republican Caucus chair in the House, Williamson serves on the banking, insurance, rules, and ways and means committees, among others. He said his attendance at events sponsored by lobbyists representing “business interests” is necessary to “to stay well informed about a variety of issues impacting job creators. I might not necessarily agree with them. In fact I’ve had some opportunities to have some really good disagreements with them. But that’s why I go. … I can afford to go anywhere I want to, any time I want to. It isn’t like my excuse to be able to get a meal. This is about my ability to get better informed.”
Williamson said his involvement with groups like the Georgia Bankers Association has led to the development of important legislation relating to banking that serves his constituents’ needs, including the banking and finance cleanup bill he sponsored last session that was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in May.
“It was 102 pages and touches everything from money service businesses, down to credit unions, to banks and mortgage brokers,” Williamson said. As the co-founder of two banks in Georgia, he said, “I know more about community banking than most trained bankers. And typically when I’m hearing about banking legislation, I can better understand it than the majority of most members. And that’s why I’ve got a great relationship with all these bankers that I’ve met through the years … They’re the people that lend money to Georgians all over the state.”
Williamson noted that aspects of the banking industry such as fintech, which involves computer programs and other technology used to support banking and financial services, “are constantly evolving. And you have to constantly stay on top of it.”
Best Fed Woman
The female legislator who attracted the most lobbying largesse in 2022 was Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, who is the winner of our Best Fed Woman award. Butler received $4,687 from lobbyists representing associations including Realtors, manufacturers, utilities, transportation, health care, and food and beverage industries. About 58% of their gifts to her were spent on meals and drinks, and the rest on deluxe hotel accommodations. She ranks 16th among all lawmakers on our list.
A member of the Senate since 1999, and the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Butler serves on the rules, regulated industries and utilities, and the state and local government operations committees, among others.
Butler attended the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association annual convention at The Cloister resort on Sea Island last June, enjoying $1,180 in free lodging. Presenters at that meeting included leaders of Bass Sox Mercer, a car dealer franchise law firm whose legislative agenda advocates for less car manufacturer involvement in the retail sales of vehicles, and a representative of Cox Automotive who heads their electric vehicle battery department.
In July, the Georgia Food Industry Association spent $950 on her hotel and food during its annual meeting at the Omni Orlando resort in Florida. Like Williamson, she mingled with members of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce at its spring meeting in St. Simons, receiving $725 in lodging.
On Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session, Butler and her staff enjoyed a dinner on the tab of a lobbyist from GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group, who spent $600 on that final day’s feast.
Butler did not respond to our interview request.
Best Fed Democrat
Why give an award for Best Fed Democrat? Because we anticipate that in Republican-dominated Georgia, it may take a while for Democratic legislators to attain Golden Fork status.
This year’s Best Fed Democrat is Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon. He racked up $7,006 in hospitality from lobbyists representing groups who care about sports betting, trial lawyers, convenience stores, health care and transportation industries, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber. He ranks fourth overall on our list.
Reelected to a second term as House minority leader last November, Beverly represented Democrats in the chamber led by the late-Republican House Speaker David Ralston for much of last year. The committees he serves on include appropriations, small business development, health, and ethics.
An optometrist when he’s not working at the Statehouse, Beverly enjoyed multiple meals with lobbyists representing the Georgia Optometry Association (GOA) in 2022, including $423 in lodging and food at its fall education conference in Athens. He also met with GOA representatives a few times for lunch, including meals at Atlanta eateries Home grown and Gio’s Chicken, for meals that cost $13 and $23, respectively.
At one lunch meeting, a GOA lobbyist reported they discussed HB 629, the bill that Beverly sponsored this year to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care providers. (The bill did not move in the House).
Last spring, Beverly joined many lawmakers who attended the Georgia Chamber’s event in St. Simons, where accommodations he received had a reported value of $725. He also spent a few days at the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association convention on Sea Island, enjoying $1,180 worth of free food and lodging.
Beverly did not respond to our interview request.
The Golden Fork List
Find out how much lobbyists reported spending on every Georgia lawmaker who served in 2022 on our list here.
Which legislators are in the top 10?
- Rep. Bruce Williamson, R-Monroe — $9,083
- Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega — $8,111
- Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper — $7,115
- Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon — $7,006
- Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon — $6,737
- Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell — $6,481
- Sen Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge — $6,248
- Rep. Al Williams, D-Liberty — $6,068
- Rep. Noel Williams, R-Cordele — $5,900
- Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton — $5,600
All told, registered lobbyists in Georgia reported spending $920,000 on hospitality and other gifts to lawmakers, either individually or in groups, on behalf of the organizations they represented in 2022. They spent $336,502 on individual lawmakers and another $583,644 on groups of lawmakers.
Lobbyists in Georgia, as elsewhere, pay for these in-kind gifts to lawmakers in hopes of building relationships and gaining access to them in order to further the legislative interests of the businesses, nonprofits, advocacy organizations and other people they represent. Since the late-1800s, their main job has been to educate and inform state and local leaders about the issues and concerns of the special interest groups who hired them.
The activities of lobbyists in Georgia are governed by state ethics laws that require them to publicly report any expenditure, defined as “anything of value made for the purpose of influencing the actions of any public officer or public employee,” including food or beverage consumed at a single meal or event, and gifts such as T-shirts, mugs and other branded items. Such expenditures are capped at $75 per lobbyist per public official, but lobbyists can circumvent that rule by joining forces and collectively contributing towards hospitality expenses for one or more public officials.
Lobbyists are not allowed to provide public officers with free tickets to any sporting, musical or other entertainment events. But lobbyists are allowed to secure tickets to events and then let lawmakers purchase those tickets from them at face value.
Lobbyists are allowed to pay or reimburse public officials for “reasonable expenses” for transportation, travel, lodging, registration, food, beverages and other activities related to attending a meeting or conference that directly relate to their official duties.
Since two ethics reform laws passed in 2010 and 2013 that were championed by late House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, people who spend more than $250 a year on lobbying activities have been required to register as lobbyists with the state. They must also wear a badge when they enter the state Capitol or another state facility with the intent to discuss the “promotion or opposition of the passage of any legislation” with a lawmaker. Every lobbyist must report their expenditures on lawmakers every two weeks when the Legislature is in session, and monthly during the rest of the year.
Here are the top 10 associations or lobbying firms whose interests lobbyists represented and the amounts they reported spending on individual lawmakers last year:
- Georgia Chamber of Commerce – $ 28,233
- Georgia Automobile Dealers Association – $ 24,893
- Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association – $ 15,976
- Metro Atlanta Chamber – $11,882
- Georgia Trial Lawyers Association – $ 9,923
- Georgia Bankers Association – $ 9,591
- Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals – $9,096
- Medical Association of Georgia – $8,302
- Georgia Food Industry Association – $7,580
- Cornerstone Government Affairs - $7,370
And these are the top 10 associations, lobbying firms or companies on whose behalf lobbyists lobbied and the amounts that lobbyists reported spending on all lawmakers, both individually and as part of a group of legislators:
- Savannah Chamber of Commerce – $ 77,307
- Georgia Automobile Dealers Association – $40,587
- Georgia Chamber of Commerce – $ 30,942
- Georgia Beverage Association – $ 27,431
- Taylor English Decisions LLC – 27,019
- Metro Atlanta Chamber – $ 24,980
- Georgia Bankers Association –$ 22,883
- GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group – $22,666
- Georgia Transportation Alliance – $ 22,501
- Cornerstone Government Affairs – $19,513
Golden Fork FAQ
- Did Republicans receive more hospitality and gifts than Democrats?
- Yes. Total spending by party tracks along with Republican dominance in the General Assembly. Republicans received gifts valued by lobbyists at $257,925 in 2022, and Democrats received gifts worth a total of $78,620. A Republican on average received $1,731 worth of gifts in 2022, including contributions to family members. A Democrat on average received $794.
- How did the House compare to the Senate?
- The House had 181 members in 2022 (one extra due to Rep. Mitchell Kaye taking the place of Rep. Matt Dollar, who resigned), and the Senate had 56. Representatives collectively received $232,759 in hospitality gifts, while senators got a total of $103,743. But senators were treated to more gifts per capita. They received gifts worth $1,789 on average, while representatives received gifts worth $1,225.
- How did gifts to men and women in the General Assembly compare?
- Men received more gifts, collectively and individually. There were twice as many men (159) as women (78) in the Legislature in 2022. Collectively, men received $285,065 in hospitality gifts, and women received $51,437. The average value of 2022 gifts to a male legislator was $1,793, about three times the average value of annual gifts to a female lawmaker, which was $660.
- Did all lawmakers receive free hospitality or other gifts?
- It does not appear so. Eighteen lawmakers were not included in any lobbyists’ reports, although some of them may have enjoyed free hospitality at events open to groups of lawmakers. The 18 lawmakers who did not receive individual attention from lobbyists in 2022, at least as reported to the state, are:
- Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville
- Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead
- Rep. David Clark, R-Buford
- Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Savannah
- Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro
- Rep. Sharon Henderson, D-Covington
- Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta
- Sen. Jennifer Jordan, D-Atlanta
- Rep. Angelika Kausche, D-Johns Creek
- Rep. Mitchell Kaye, R-Marietta
- Rep. Zulma Lopez, D–Atlanta
- Sen. Sheila McNeill, R-Brunswick
- Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, D-Snellville
- Rep. Randy Nix, R-Lagrange
- Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville
- Rep. Renitta Shannon, D – Decatur
- Rep. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg
- Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount that some lobbyists spent on lawmakers (Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Automobile Dealers Association, Cornerstone Government Affairs, Taylor English Decisions). Select Management Resources, originally listed as spending $29,571, actually spent $14,821, and was removed from the list. GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group was added. The amount that lobbyists spent on groups of lawmakers was changed from $598,394 to $583,644, and the total amount spent on lawmakers also changed, from "nearly $935,000" to $920,000.
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ATLANTA — College-bound Halle Mickel gave state lawmakers on Tuesday a compelling glimpse into Georgia’s foster care system.
The 19-year-old who has seven siblings in five different homes told the Senate Foster Care and Adoption Study Committee how her family’s life has been “turned upside down” ever since they were separated last April. She sees her siblings once a week. Sometimes, those visits are canceled because child welfare workers aren’t prepared, she said.
“The pain it caused not only my mom but me felt horrible,” she said. “Watching them cry as they have to leave my mom and go home to a stranger. Seeing my siblings not getting the proper hygiene care they need and so much more. Like many others, my family has been torn to pieces by the child welfare system due to struggling with poverty and being in need of immediate help. Parents aren’t always at fault when DFCS is involved.”
Mickel’s story was included among more than four hours of testimony from advocates and experts in the foster care, child welfare and family court fields. Tuesday’s session focused primarily on finding solutions for Georgia’s taxed foster care system.
Georgia has about 11,000 children in foster care, committee chair Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick told State Affairs in a post-hearing interview Tuesday. Many are in the system due to abuse, neglect, family drug addiction, violence and other hardships.
Georgia’s foster care system is stretched so thin that children in foster care in Georgia spend about two years in the system — nearly three months longer than the national average of 21.7 months, according to The Council of State Governments Southern Office.
Often there aren’t enough families to take in children so many end up in hotels or offices as a result, Candice Broce, head of Georgia Family and Children Services, recently told the committee.
Broce was back before the committee Tuesday with good news. The foster care system reached a milestone on Sept. 8, when no foster children were reported staying in hotels or offices, she said. Since then, the agency has only used hoteling in a few emergency cases, she noted.
Still, Tuesday’s testimonies showed Georgia is spending more money troubleshooting and intervening rather than preventing children from having to go into the foster care system.
About $538 million in state and federal money is spent on Georgia’s foster care system. The bulk of that — $498.5 million — goes to intervention and late intervention programs, according to Voices for Georgia’s Children, a nonprofit child policy and advocacy group.
“In Georgia, we allocate around 20% of Title IV funding towards prevention while the majority of resources are funneled into the foster care and adoption industry,” said Sarah Winograd of Together With Families, an advocacy group for families in the child welfare system.
“While the majority of the resources are funneled into the foster care and adoption industry,” Winograd told the committee. “It’s an industry. Consider the numbers: a staggering $32,000 per year to keep one child separated from their family and in foster care.”
It costs her organization “a mere $500 to $1,500 per child in assistance and resources at Together with Families to prevent foster care and help families improve their own lives,”she said.
Why It Matters
The committee heard suggestions to help Georgia focus more on prevention rather than intervention. Among the suggestions:
- Issue state identification cards to foster children. Often kids are removed from their homes during chaotic situations leaving birth certificates and other import documents unavailable to them. Children would be issued a state ID within 90 days of entering the foster care system, displaying information such as the child’s Medicaid number. It would enable older children in the system to get jobs and perform other vital daily tasks. The cost would run about $5 a child. “That should be something that’s not too difficult to achieve,” Kirkpatrick said.
- Use the Safe Babies approach in Georgia courts. Between 2011 and 2018, Georgia saw a 44% increase in infants and toddlers entering foster care, more than any other Southern state. As a result, it needs a more collaborative, family-based approach to dealing with the youngest children in foster care, such as the Safe Babies approach used in Iowa. Iowa’s infant courts are adorned with quilts, diapers, toys and books, to help alleviate the trauma experienced by toddlers and infants in the court system. In a recent visit, Georgia officials saw how one Iowa judge, his court staff and attorneys dealt with a mother who became distraught during the hearing. The judge stopped the hearing, allowing attorneys and other staff to embrace the woman. The DFCS case manager and defense attorney told the woman they were there to help her figure out ways to keep her baby. “That’s super important. It’s been successful in other states,” Kirkpatrick said.
- Use opioid settlement money to finance foster care needs. Kirkpatrick called it a good idea but “it might not be that easy to accomplish. It’s not really under the legislature’s control.”
Kirkpatrick, a Republican and retired orthopedic surgeon who practiced in metro Atlanta for over 30 years, called Tuesday’s hearing extremely productive.
“I thought it was another great meeting,” she said. “We work pretty hard to get input from all the different groups. We won’t make our decisions about which things to tackle until we finish [all of] our meetings. We have one more where we’ll be getting some testimony.”
The senate committee’s next meeting is in Columbus on Oct. 26. It will focus on adoption.
“After that, we’ll get together and figure out what our legislative priorities are going to be,” Kirkpatrick said.
Want to know how many foster children have been placed in foster homes outside of your county? Go to seetheneed.org to find out. See The Need was created by Alpharetta-based FaithBridge Foster Care to raise awareness about foster care in America.
Header image: The Senate Study Committee on Foster Care and Adoption held their second meeting at the Capitol to hear testimony from citizens, nonprofits and state agency representatives. (Credit: Georgia Senate)