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Bill Shipp - Georgia needs a fourth branch

Georgia needs a new constitution. We haven't adopted a new one since 1983. Before that, the Peach State regularly rolled out new constitutions at the rate of one about every 20 years since the Civil War.

Now, we have allowed our present state constitution to approach its 25th birthday without a single cry for a complete makeover. Friends, our state is desperate for a fresh baseline for our laws.

Where should we start? How about this? Expand the definition of the three branches of government to four to include executive, legislative, judicial - and lobbying.

No group of people has a greater effect on our lives at the federal and state level than lobbyists - people paid to twist arms, buy football tickets and pick up tabs for steaks and booze to affect legislation and policy.

Lobbyists are undoubtedly the smartest people in the halls of the Gold Dome. They have the ability to enact legislation, block legislation and write legislation. In this age of passive state government, lobbyists call most of the shots regarding policies on every topic. So their roles should be officially recognized - and regulated. (Oh, lordy, don't use that word "regulated" again, please.)

To begin our research on expanding the branches, let's pick up a copy of "Who Runs Georgia?" a modest tome written by Calvin Kytle and James Mackay after Georgia's three-governor fiasco of 1946. The Kyle-Mackay answer then: the corporations. The broad response has not changed, but the names of the corporations are different.

The influence of corporate lobbyists (and their bosses, of course) is everywhere. Even when lobbyists step down from their corporate posts, their influence lives on and even grows. Take the banks and bankers. Gov. Sonny Perdue created two new six-figure positions to run his New Georgia and turned the posts over to bankers - chief operating officer, a post occupied by former Bank of America exec Jim Lientz, and chief financial officer, filled by Tommy Hills, formerly of Wachovia.

Perdue's first chief of staff was Eric Tanenblatt, who left lobbying powerhouse McKenna Long & Aldridge to serve Perdue, only to return to his old firm a year later. Tanenblatt was replaced by John Watson, a lobbyist, who was replaced by Ed Holcombe, who had retired after decades as a lobbyist for Georgia Power.

And then there's the legislative branch, including House Speaker Glenn Richardson's infamous relationship with an AGL lobbyist who just happened to be advocating a massive pipeline requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in underwriting by taxpayers. One-time Richardson aide Sam Choate left the speaker in October 2007 to become a lobbyist. Today, Choate counts among his lobbying clients a utility, a private prison, a tobacco company and a drug company.

To prove his piety and innocence on lobbyist matters, Perdue stepped off a helicopter one day and loudly proposed restrictions on legislators becoming lobbyists. A weakened version of the "revolving door" bill ultimately passed, but not before two of the governor's floor leaders and sponsors of the lobbyists reform measure, Dan Lee and Bill Stephens, beat the effective date and became lobbyists. Both are lobbying today, with a full stable of high-powered clients.

Perdue's legislation did not apply to staff, maybe to protect Tanenblatt's future employment. A more likely explanation is that the legislation was drafted by Perdue's deputy counsel, Robert Highsmith, who left the governor early in the first term to return to his old law firm - Holland & Knight, a lobbying/law firm with offices in 22 cities and five countries. Highsmith left as an associate of the firm and returned a full partner - a common practice in Washington. His client list includes utilities, banks and health-care companies. He is an expert in campaign finance law (he was Gov. Roy Barnes's Republican appointee to the State Ethics Commission), and represents, among others, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Karen Handel, the Senate Republican PAC, and Gov. Perdue's political action committee, PerduePAC. Yes, he represents the very same people he lobbies.

The winners in this morass are the lobbyists, who make millions, the interests they represent, who rake in billions, and the politicians who hunt and fish and go to football games and NASCAR races on the lobbyists' tab. The winners are bipartisan, though the party in power wins bigger. Under Democrats and Republicans, bankers run the banking committees in the House and Senate, and name the Banking Commissioner. And other industries run other committees - all under the guise of the value of a citizen legislature. Valuable to whom?

The real results of such an arrangement: The consumer gets the shaft. There are many examples, the most prominent of which is the gutting of predatory lending laws in 2003, leading to record foreclosures, and in a nice twist of irony, the failure of a number of sub-prime lenders. We wonder not about the gutting in the first year of the Perdue administration, but how Gov. Barnes was able to pass the anti-predatory lending legislation shortly before he left office.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net, or Web address: billshipponline.com.