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Santa should have brought us a lobbyist

Georgia gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, right, speaks to supporters at a fund raiser in Atlanta, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel blasted the culture of "sex, lies and lobbyists" that has held sway at the Georgia Capitol under the rule of her fellow Republicans. Handel, who's running to become the state's first female governor, pledged to end the "cycle of abuse and corruption" under the gold dome. She said for too long legislation has passed or failed on the strength of campaign contributions and pricey dinners.
Georgia gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, right, speaks to supporters at a fund raiser in Atlanta, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel blasted the culture of "sex, lies and lobbyists" that has held sway at the Georgia Capitol under the rule of her fellow Republicans. Handel, who's running to become the state's first female governor, pledged to end the "cycle of abuse and corruption" under the gold dome. She said for too long legislation has passed or failed on the strength of campaign contributions and pricey dinners.(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Question: why do people care so much about lobbyists? We've all heard stories about politicians being influenced by lobbyists. We've heard the ways in which lobbyists influence the outcome of legislation and indeed, the direction and nature of political debate. All those things are true. What is not necessarily understood is the legitimate function lobbyists play in our democracy, or imitation thereof.

This week is paramount in the life of Georgia politics. The state legislature is in session for the first time this year and it's a good thing they are. Georgia's unemployment rate for November was 10.2 percent. The state's projected midyear FY 2010 budget gap is $1.2 billion. In other words, legislators have many decisions to make. Even so, they have limited time, staff and expertise which they can devote to crafting solutions. This is where lobbyists become important.

Imagine that a state representative wants to create jobs. To do so, they propose constructing a new sewage plant. With the limited time and research available, they conclude that jobs would be created and new tax revenues would be raised by doing so. Problem solved, right? Wrong. At this point it's necessary to have an environmental lobby to present the other costs involved; damage to the environment, monetary costs associated with pollution and extra revenue that would be lost to fines and the like. Simply put, lobbyists play a vital role in filling the gaps between what legislators know and what they ought to.

All that sounds wonderful. Herein lies the problem: animals, plants, tobacco companies, pharmaceutical companies, agribusiness and many others have relatively active, well funded lobbies. Poor people and the working class generally don't . The situation is comparable to the criminal justice system. People who can afford lawyers obviously get more justice than those who must utilize public defenders. It helps to have someone looking out for your interests as lawmakers weigh legislative options. For example, the health insurance lobbies worked fervently to kill the public option in the health care bill over the past year because its consequences would have been contrary to their interests. At the height of their fight, they were spending a total of $1.4 million a day.

As Georgia legislators meet to decide what cuts will be made to the budget, what services should be eliminated and what tax breaks will be good for the state, expect the process not to deviate from the past. The working poor, homeless and the lowliest laborers will never be represented. As policy options are formulated, it would be nice if someone would speak to the people in the gold dome when the interests of the people are violated.

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