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Posted: March 10, 2012 11:51 a.m.

Lobbyists spend in charter school debate

ATLANTA (AP) - Lobbyists on both sides of the charter school debate have spent thousands trying to woo Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, shelling out for a documentary film screening, coffee and pricey meals, some topping $100 a person.

The tab is growing as a constitutional amendment allowing the state to create and fund charter schools is hanging in limbo in the Senate. The state Supreme Court outlawed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission in a May ruling, and it cannot restart its work unless the amendment is approved.

The bill already has passed the House. If it passes the Senate with the needed two-thirds majority, it would go on the November ballot for voters to decide.

"If you don't have lobbyists in today's legislative world in Georgia, then you really can't get anything done because everybody uses the service of lobbyists," said Tony Roberts, head of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, which has paid for at least three lobbyists this legislative session to help get the constitutional amendment passed.

An Associated Press analysis of the bi-monthly reports that lobbyists turn in to the state ethics commission shows that charter school supporters have spent at least $7,800 since January on everything from breakfast to framed photos for state lawmakers. On the other side of the debate, groups representing teachers, school administrators, school boards and public school parents have spent at least $2,400 on lunch and coffee for lawmakers.

The lobbyist expenses are only the tip of the iceberg because organizations don't have to report lobbyists' salaries, travel expenses for parents and students who visit the Capitol or the cost of printed materials handed out to lawmakers.

The biggest single expense was by the charter schools association, for a reception and screening of the pro-charter school documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" for lawmakers and others Jan. 17. That event cost more than $3,400.

The American Federation for Children, which also lobbies for charter schools, spent $75 on frames for photos of state lawmakers with former longtime Braves pitcher John Smoltz.

The Georgia Family Council, which pushes for charter schools each year, paid $410 for lunch for the House Education Committee and has offered $10 Starbucks gift cards to parents willing to talk to lawmakers about charter schools and other school choice options. Council officials have declined to say how many gift cards they've given away.

"The heightened lobbying on the charter constitutional amendment shows how much is at stake for the future of public education in Georgia," said Jerri Nims Rooker, director of the council's Center for an Educated Georgia.

Often state lawmakers' office will contact lobbyists asking for them to host a lunch or dinner. And the lobbyists involved in the charter schools debate frequently represent multiple clients on a laundry list of issues, not just education, so expenses for a meal can be split among several organizations.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents more than 82,000 educators statewide, spent $872 on lunch for lawmakers during a day of events hosted by the teacher organization. And the Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association, along with two other non-education organizations, split the cost of coffee for lawmakers throughout the session - about $800 per group.

Both groups have lobbied against the constitutional amendment, though they said their expenses are related to all education legislation, not just charter schools. The organizations collect dues from members - which can include money that school boards get from taxpayers - to use for their expenses.

"K-12 education in Georgia is a multi-billion dollar business," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the educators' association. "There are (companies) anxious to get a piece of this business in league with some of our politicians who seem eager to privatize it."

The critics say the constitutional amendment would allow the state to siphon money from cash-strapped districts at a time when they're facing $1 billion in cuts and lagging property tax revenue. GOP leaders have promised no money will be taken from school districts but have not said where they will find the funding in lean budget times.

The charter school issue has brought a "different dynamic" to education lobbying at the statehouse, said Angela Palm, lobbyist for the school boards association.

"We typically focus on the issue, research, impact on students and implementation issues if any," Palm said. "Now we are faced with committee rooms filled with contract lobbyists from top firms, radio ads against legislators, movies, Starbucks cards for rewarding people for contacting their legislators with a specific message and who knows what else."

Radio ads targeting lawmakers opposed to the constitutional amendment have aired in Augusta and Gainesville. In Augusta, the ad - paid for by a coalition that includes the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the American Federation for Children, the Georgia Charter Schools Association and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation - asks listeners to call Democratic Sen. Hardie Davis and ask him to vote for the constitutional amendment.

"The rest of us are working hard every day just to make ends meet, and have only one choice: public schools. Don't we deserve better choices for our kids, too?" the ad asks.

Roberts declined to say how much his organization spends on contracting with outside lobbyists, but the association reported it spent $90,000 for a lobbying firm in 2009, the most recent federal tax data available. The association also has lobbyists on staff fulltime.

The associations for teachers, school administrators, school boards and parents typically don't hire lobbyists from outside firms, instead relying on their own staffs.

The fight between the sides has grown increasingly bitter as Senate Democrats refuse to budge on their opposition to the measure, despite multiple back-room meetings with GOP leaders hoping to sway the vote of the state's minority party. No members of either party would discuss the meetings.

Gov. Nathan Deal has even been involved in the push to get the legislation passed.

Such lobbyist spending is nothing new in Georgia. Lobbyists line the halls of the state Capitol building, crowding around the entrance to each chamber in hopes of talking with lawmakers and provide meals, snacks, sodas and gifts for legislators throughout the session.

There are nearly 1,200 lobbyist registered with the state who have spent $630,371.62 on lawmakers so far this year.

"What adds to the erosion of public trust is when people see legislators are getting ... pictures of John Smoltz," said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, a government watchdog group. "They don't see that as educating lawmakers about the benefits of a law."

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