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GOP governors’ conference is swarming with lobbyists

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CARLSBAD, Calif. (AP) -- When 25 Republican governors met for their annual conference, some 500 representatives of special-interest groups followed, shelling out thousands of dollars for the chance to chat with the states' top officials.

At a time when the federal government is shifting more responsibility to the states, gatherings like the Republican Governors Association meeting take on added significance, some lobbyists said."The governors are the most influential public officials in the country when it comes to actually running government," said John Matthews, a consultant with the law firm of Foley & Lardner who traveled from Wisconsin. "Wherever they go, they're going to draw a crowd."

Many of the lobbyists represented the 78 sponsors of the event, each of whom chipped in between $1,000 and $30,000 to help pay for the conference. Others were members of the elite RGA supporters that had previously given the Republican governors between $5,000 and $100,000.

Many of those contributors were treated to private meals with the governors and key staff. In some cases, the meals were paid for by companies, including a Thursday dinner for chiefs of staff sponsored by Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals.

The National Rifle Association offered skeet shooting lessons for its "guests" here, and Toyota invited governors to drive its new fuel-sipping car.

"There's relatively easy access" to the governors, said Mike Phillips, representing RJR Reynolds Tobacco. "We'll be playing golf, and at the functions and business meetings, you have access."

"It's an opportunity to meet and talk with governors and their staffs about the issues," said Tim Campbell, who traveled from Hartford, Conn., as a representative of Citigroup.

He cited such issues as insurance regulation, securities law and rules on the use of personal information. But, he added, "This is not a lobbying, high-pressure, arm-twisting gathering."

The RGA meeting is "a target-rich environment," said another lobbyist.

Several governors said in interviews there was nothing inappropriate about having lobbyists roam around their conference.

"Unfortunately, I think this happens in both parties, but I have never had anyone -- and I've been to several of these meetings -- I've never had any of the corporate entities come lobby me on anything," said Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster.

"The relationships that most of us have with those who would represent those communities is, from my experience, far more just social," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said.

The lobbyists spent Thursday roaming the La Costa Spa and Resort, a sprawling complex where green fees usually cost $160. Phillips said the golf fees were included as part of his company's contribution to the RGA.

The RGA declined to release a list of sponsors, but a copy obtained by The Associated Press showed 78 companies and advocacy groups had contributed.

They included three tobacco companies, three telecommunications firms, an Indian tribe, Microsoft Corp., the American Forest & Paper Association and Phillips Petroleum Co.

Also listed as sponsors were Robin and Gerry Parsky, who is chairman of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign in California. The Parskys hosted a dinner for governors and members of the RGA's "Governors' Cabinet" -- those who had contributed $100,000 to the association.

That money goes to the Republican National State Elections account, another memo stated. It added that "there is no statutory limit on the amount a corporation, individual or PAC may contribute to RGA."

The corporate presence here was evident from the moment the conference opened Wednesday night with a concert by the Beach Boys.

Surf outfitter Quiksilver, Inc. donated floral shorts "to insure that all party attendees have the proper beach attire" for the occasion, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour wrote in a letter to participants.

The note was written on letterhead from Barbour's law firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers, which also was listed as an RGA sponsor.

Reporters covering the event each were billed $100 for "refreshments."