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Political 'access' can have a high public price tag

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POSTED: November 19, 2012 6:00 p.m.

We’ve been here before, and will no doubt be here again. But in this case the stakes are considerably higher than the usual too-cozy relationship between lawmakers and the interests with which they do what is supposed to be public business.

First, the familiar part: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that over the past two years the Georgia World Congress Center has given state lawmakers thousands of dollars worth of tickets to sports and entertainment events.

Nothing new there. The dismissive arrogance of the Georgia political class concerning the “generosity” of interests with pending legislation, and the corrosive effect on public confidence in government, can no longer surprise anybody.

The problem this time is that some relatively small numbers at the start of this story might grow into some really huge ones by the end of it.

Among the legislative beneficiaries of the Congress Center’s largess are members of something called the Georgia World Congress Center Legislative Overview Committee, whose current members have received more than $9,000 worth of freebies since 2010 including, according to the AJC, frequent use of luxury boxes at the Georgia Dome.

That committee is charged with oversight of the World Congress Center Authority, which is expected to ask the General Assembly next year to raise its borrowing limit to build a new retractable-roof stadium for the Atlanta Falcons.

This isn’t a vague, long-term proposition: The Congress Center Authority is trying to reach a deal with the Falcons by the end of the year —— meaning about six weeks from now.

And the public say into this public investment in the value of a private sports franchise would be …?

The committee, meanwhile, all but one of whose members represent metro-area districts (surprise, surprise), has enjoyed a few thousand dollars worth of perks. That committee will almost certainly have considerable influence in approval of funding for a facility expected to come in at somewhere around $1 billion.

The appropriateness of public funding for a private franchise’s profit venue is one debate (although if this process is any indication, it’s no wonder the NFL is the richest league in sports). To arrange such funding with little or no public involvement is quite another.

In a blog titled “Opened roof, closed doors,” Common Cause Georgia (www.CommonCauseGA.org) board member and former lawmaker Wyc Orr asks, “How does a public authority get so far along in the process of cutting deals with a private entity involving the bartering, encumbering, obligating and expending of public money, property and resources without at least some significant semblance of public awareness and input …?”

Good question. If truck races and wrestling tickets are part of the answer, that’s pretty pathetic.

 

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