The little secret a lot of legislators don’t want you to know isn’t how lavish some of the meals lobbyists feed them are. It’s about how hungry they are by the time they line up at the trough.

You already know about those big-tab dinners lawmakers are fed, and if you don’t, a story by Chris Joyner in Sunday’s AJC about one thrown by a convoy of lobbyists for the House Natural Resources Committee will give you a good idea.

Lobbyists have been wining and dining legislators since time immemorial. But what is seldom remarked is that over time, the net worth of those being fed, compared to that of those who are feeding them, has seriously declined.

The same financial disclosure forms which make it impossible to tell exactly how rich the legislators are, also make it impossible to tell how many of them have gone broke. But the Great Recession has had a deep and sometimes tragic impact on the General Assembly.

There’s a lot of debate over the apparent murder-suicide of former Sen. Nancy Schaefer and her husband, but the couple’s home was about to go into foreclosure when the 2010 tragedy happened. You have to wonder, also, if the fiercely independent Rep. Bobby Franklin would have put off doing something about his chest pains if he hadn’t been in serious financial straits.

Most members of the legislature aren’t anything near destitution, although a recent one-term legislator was rumored to be living out of his car during the session. But the appointment of seven current or recent legislators to paid state positions by Gov. Nathan Deal (himself a widely publicized victim of the downturn) speaks to the reality that many of them need a job.

Few lawmakers are as candid as Rep. Ralph Long, who told the AJC that without dinners like the one thrown for the Natural Resources Committee, “I can’t afford to be here otherwise.” But more than a few view service in the legislature – from the Wild Hog dinner and all those other big spreads at the Depot, to the big-ticket dinners, to the Varsity hot dogs they bring in during the closing hours – as a good source of free protein, as well as a way of giving back to their community.

Along with the impact of the recession, the net worth of the legislature has been affected by the passage over time from a community-centered politics, based on who could afford to take the time to represent the district, to an ideology-centered politics based on who can raise the money to run.

“This is a more middle-class, pedestrian legislature now,” said one of several lobbyists and former legislators who voiced the same sentiment.

The affable Hugh Gillis may not have looked like as much money as many of the more expensive suits currently serving in the Senate, but he was worth a lot more.

It’s impossible to know precisely from the disclosures, but the general impression is there may have been committee chairmen in the past worth more than whole committees serving today. Many came from wealthy families, but others, like Al Burruss, who built his fortune in the poultry industry from scratch, were self-made. All-in-all, the legislature circa 1990, which included Gillis, Glenn Bryant, Paul Coverdell, Roy Barnes and Johnny Isakson, figures to have had a lot more real money in the bank than the current body. They were people who could pick up their own tabs, if they had to.

Another notable difference from the legislature of that era is that none of those in the top tier were black or female, and that no longer appears to be true.

Again, it’s a guessing game. The disclosures tell us that Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Decatur Democrat, owns an interest in 10 companies ranging from auto dealerships to real estate agencies, and seven pieces of property worth more than a total of $1.3 million. But where that puts him in relation to Senate Rules Chair Don Balfour, a vice president of Waffle House who owns more than $5,000 worth of stock in the company, depends on what all of that is worth in this tough economy. And of course, on what “more” means.

It’s a legislature, like the state it represents, that by and large isn’t doing that badly, but not nearly as good as it has in the past. Which puts the allure of those pricey dinners in a whole new light.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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