ATLANTA (AP) — The unofficial start to the 2014 legislative session known as the Wild Hog Supper featured the same group of Georgia politicians and lobbyists, but a different tone after the event was overhauled this year to be more transparent and benefit the needy.
An estimated 1,000 people attended Sunday night's event, which is in its 52nd year. Previously, it wasn't always clear who was paying for what at the event, conveying an image of lobbyists putting on a big feast for politicians less than 24 hours before the session begins.
With the General Assembly passing major ethics reforms last year, officials suggested an overhaul of the event. Now, the Georgia Food Bank Association is organizing the Wild Hog Supper and detailing all the sponsors, which included Georgia EMC, the Georgia Restaurant Association and the Georgia Poultry Federation among others.
And for the first time, lawmakers had to pay to get in — $20 per ticket plus a canned food item for donation.
State Sen. John McKoon, R-Columbus, said the changes allow lawmakers to gather for fellowship "without the stench of potential corruption." McKoon said he used campaign funds to purchase 25 tickets for himself and constituents to the event at the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot near the Capitol.
"An event like this can raise money, can raise food and can raise consciousness," said Bill Bolling with the Georgia Food Bank Association. "There was not a lot of transparency in the past."
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said he reached out the Georgia Food Bank Association and asked them to coordinate the event, which had previously been a joint effort of the department and a special nonprofit formed just for the dinner.
"Here's something that everybody could support," Black said. "And what better message can we say at the beginning of the General Assembly, for us all to come together for a unifying cause, and that's to help people."
Gathered outside was a small group of protestors, who were signaling the start of the "Moral Monday" movement in Georgia, which aims to put pressure on Gov. Nathan Deal to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law. Deal has said the state can't afford the expansion.
The effort includes various advocacy groups and the Georgia NAACP, and is modeled after a group in North Carolina. Demonstrators there were arrested weekly last year.
"If you are eating tonight and enjoying yourself, think about those 600,000 Georgians without health insurance," the Rev. Tim McDonald said into a bullhorn toward the line of lawmakers waiting to get into the dinner.