AJC Watchdog: Ga. Capitol culture rewards insiders, punishes outsiders

A letter circulating this session from a former state representative puts a fine point on the lawmaker-to-lobbyist pipeline at the Capitol.

Just a week after the start of the session last month, former Rep. Rusty Kidd sent a letter to lobbyists working for the casino gaming industry assuring them he was on the case, despite a one-year ban on lobbying activity for former lawmakers.

“I can still work with corporations such as the gaming industry,” Kidd said in the Jan. 13 letter. “I have been in contact with several CEOs and talked with numerous key legislators about what it would take to get 120 votes in the House, 39 votes in the Senate and then ratified by the people.”

Kidd served four terms as the House’s only independent until deciding for health reasons to give up his seat this year. When he sent the letter, he had only officially been out of office for about a week.

Prior to his legislative service, Kidd spent decades as a lobbyist and indicated he might like to return to that life once he served his year-long hiatus.

“While I will not see you in the hallway of the Capitol, I will probably see you during the session,” he wrote. “I truly miss it and watching it on the Internet is not the same as being in the chamber or with friends like you watching TV in the hallway.”

His letter is careful to show he is observing the letter of the law. For instance, he wrote that a meeting of gaming CEOs was being planned to talk legislative strategy, but “not by me.”

Talking to lawmakers, counting votes and huddling with corporate executives might seem like lobbying, but it’s not. State law says someone is not a lobbyist until they are paid to be one, and Kidd says he’s just interested in seeing casino gambling come to Georgia.

“As of this moment I don’t have a contract for anybody for nothing,” he said in an interview this week. But, he added, nothing in state law would prevent him from being “a consultant.”

Kidd’s desire to keep a toe in the legislative waters is nothing new. In fact, the lawmaker-to-lobbyist pipeline is as much a career path in Atlanta as in Washington.

And for Kidd, the idea that he would continue to be a factor in state politics, despite a legally imposed layoff, is natural. He is the son of the legendary State Sen. Culver Kidd, who served four decades in the Legislature.

Moreover, Kidd said bringing casino gaming to Georgia has been an interest of his that predates his legislative service and he is concerned that — in his absence — the current effort “won’t fly.”

“They need to make some changes (to the bill),” he said. But, he added, “I’m not a lobbyist. I’m not here lobbying for anything.”

Kidd did say he believes his own district in Baldwin County would make a fine location for a “destination resort” and there is plenty of room for a casino along Lake Sinclair. And he’s got a right to make his voice heard, he said.

“I’m still a citizen of the state and a taxpayer of the state,” he said. “Why should I have my rights taken away from me just because I’m an ex-state legislator?”

Capitol writes, keeps own rules

He’s got a point. Michael Jablonski, an Atlanta attorney and expert on government law, said Kidd’s interest in casino legislation doesn’t mean he is violating the law, even if it raises eyebrows.

“It does raise some questions that he is doing this very quickly after leaving the Legislature,” he said. “The purpose of the one-year, cooling-off period is to put some distance between a former legislator working on legislation and basically lobbying clients. But it is clearly not a violation.”

Clearly. But it does show that the ruling class at the Capitol writes and keeps its own rules. Those who play by them are rewarded, and those who don’t reap the consequences.

Last week, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, announced he would not seek re-election in 2018. Inside the Senate there were plenty of dry eyes.

“I have accumulated many enemies,” McKoon said in a statement.

McKoon, who is in his fourth, two-year term, is a unicorn. For years, he has angered the left with anti-immigrant and “religious liberty” bills, while isolating himself from his own party by pushing for tougher ethics laws and more transparency.

At times, he has managed simultaneously to be a tea party darling and an unlikely ally for Democrats. Such political gymnastics cost McKoon his committee chairmanship and any bill with his name on it is a dead letter once it reaches the House.

McKoon said the immediate reaction to his announcement was a lot of “fertilizer spreading” by his colleagues, but the era of good feelings did not last.

“We’ve gone back to the standard fear and loathing,” he said.

Public should know what’s happening

McKoon isn’t letting up. Earlier this session, he pushed for a rule change that would require the Senate to formally record votes on floor amendments, which are now done by a hand vote that doesn’t indicate how each senator voted. McKoon argued that voters should be able to hold their senators accountable for every vote, but his effort failed.

After announcing his intention not to run for re-election, McKoon tilted at another windmill, using his smart phone to live stream committee meetings. While committee meetings in the House generally are recorded, they are not on the Senate side, something McKoon said makes little sense.

“I think in 2017 that’s absurd,” he said. “People ought to know what is happening in their government. I shouldn’t be begging them to do the right thing.”

Quickly fliers appeared on Senate committee doors saying broadcasting could only be done “in an approved location by the chairman” of the committee. McKoon said he informed Republican leadership of his plan to stream his own committee meetings and hasn’t received anything official telling him to stop.

“If I am verbally told in a committee meeting, then I will respect the chairman’s wish,” he said. But, he added, “I’m prepared to seek legal advice.”

McKoon: Capitol culture ‘sick and twisted’

The examples of Kidd and McKoon are instructive for those wanting to understand the culture of the Capitol.

Both are pleasant fellows to talk to and each believe they stand on righteous ground. Neither, apparently, is violating the law, but one is a consummate insider, while they other is a boat-rocking outsider.

Ironically, while McKoon is in the Legislature kicking like a mule, Kidd is on the outside trying to get back in.

“You can’t help but miss it,” Kidd said.

McKoon called the Capitol culture “sick and twisted” and lawmakers are not listening to what voters want.

“The General Assembly has not gotten the Donald Trump memo,” he said.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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