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Lobbying dollars, food flow in Sunday sales push

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

The Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Most any day the Georgia Legislature is in session, you can find lobbyist Jim Tudor in an anteroom steps from the House chamber clad in an apron. Tudor is dishing out food for state lawmakers, something he's been doing for years as the face of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, whose members want to be able to sell beer and wine on Sundays.

The push to win passage of Sunday alcohol sales appears to operate on a simple assumption: The best way to win a lawmaker's vote is through his stomach.

A fleet of well-connected lobbyists has poured thousands of dollars into wining and dining lawmakers this session as they work to muscle Sunday sales through the state Legislature.

And it looks like the effort may be paying off. After bottling the bill up for years, the Senate OK'd Sunday sales earlier this month by a 32-22 vote, bucking a fierce last-crusade against the measure from the Georgia Christian Coalition. The House could act on the bill as soon as this week.

The legislation would allow local communities to ask voters to decide whether they want to permit the Sunday sale of beer, wine and liquor at stores. Georgia is currently one of just three states that ban Sunday sales at stores.

The lobbying efforts this year have been visible and intense.

"It's been a full-court press," state Sen. Jeff Mullis R-Chickamauga, acknowledged.

The Georgia Food Industry Association -- which represents grocery stores -- has taken on eight outside lobbyists to supplement its two person in-house staff. Among the heavy-hitters they've brought in is Pete Robinson, the well-connected former leader of the state Senate who also served on Gov. Nathan Deal's transition team. The Publix supermarket chain has hired GeorgiaLink and John "Trip" Martin, a longtime fixture in the state Capitol lobbying corps.

Tudor and his convenience stores have spent $1,618 feeding House members in the chamber so far this session, according to lobbying disclosure reports filed with the state. Across the rotunda, the food industry group has shelled out $1,693 to keep food and beverages flowing in the Senate. Those numbers will grow before the 40-day session ends.

Yet Tudor said he believes that educating legislators about the bill -- rather than free doughnuts -- has driven its success this year.

"It has a lot less to do with people's stomachs than just an overall better understanding of this being a local option issue," Tudor said.

Tudor added that he doesn't lobby in the House anteroom and has been providing the meals for some 25 years, predating the five-year-old push for Sunday sales. Still, the special access irks some other longtime lobbyists.

"Nobody else gets to do it," said Neil Herring, a veteran Sierra Club lobbyist.

Still, even outside the House and Senate anterooms, lobbyists involved in the Sunday sales fight have paid for private dinners and receptions for lawmakers.

Kathy Kuzava and Jason Bragg from the Georgia Food Industry Association reported spending $2,253 on additional meals and reception costs. Tudor chipped in another $1,536 on a reception.

Neither group reports the money as specifically endorsing the Sunday sales legislation, but that's the highest-profile measure being sought by each group.

The actual dollars spent to push for Sunday sales are sometimes difficult to track because lobbyists do not report specifically what bill they are lobbying on behalf of.

Martin reported spending $7,867 on legislators so far this session -- everything from $80 for snacks for Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams and her aides to $2,032 for commemorative books for the House Majority Caucus staff. The report does not specify any legislation being sought and lists only his firm GeorgiaLink rather than a particular client. Martin has a large roster of clients in addition to Publix.

Michael Mitchell, another Publix lobbyist, spent more than $3,300 on lawmakers including $219 for flowers to grace the lapels of each member in honor of International Women's Day.

But one thing is clear from state disclosure reports: Members of the legislative black caucus -- whose votes were in doubt -- were courted aggressively, especially those in the state Senate where a close outcome was predicted.

Kuzava spent $163.93 on a meal for five black senators.

Tharon Johnson, who ran Kasim Reed's campaign for mayor of Atlanta and is one of the grocery industry lobbyists, spent $375 on dinners for black lawmakers and tickets to the legislative black caucus dinner. Another grocery lobbyist, Rob Willis also reported spending on meals for several senators in the black caucus.

The father-son team of Ed and Stony McGill, who lobby for the state's liquor stores, have poured $2,720 into receptions, dinners and hospitality suites for legislators. The spending including $250 on tickets to the legislative black caucus dinner.

"We were heavily lobbied. More so than on other issues," said state Sen. Lester Jackson, a Savannah Democrat. "They tried to make an appeal to urban legislators and there was a thought that Sunday sales would have a special appeal to African-Americans."

Nonetheless, Jackson voted against the bill, concerned it could put more intoxicated drivers on the road.

Overall, the caucus was split, with six for, six against and on excused.

This year's onslaught may owe more to the executive branch than the legislative one. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue had threatened to veto Sunday sales for years but Deal has said he'll sign the bill if it reaches his desk, casting it not as support, not for drinking, but for local control.

Religious groups that oppose Sunday sales complained they were outmatched by deep pocketed business interests.

"The votes went where the dollars were," Georgia Christian Coalition President Jerry Luquire said.

"I have been to Las Vegas one time and the smell of greed overwhelmed me. That same smell was outside the Senate when they passed that bill," he said.