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    11th-hour change may muzzle ethics agency

     

    By JIM WALLS

    April 6, 2009 — Georgia legislators, in the final hours of their 2009 session on Friday, appear to have muzzled the agency that monitors their compliance with campaign finance laws.

    Last-minute changes to Senate Bill 168 redefined the powers of the State Ethics Commission, which enforces laws governing financial disclosure for political campaigns and elected officials. The commission, which has been authorized to create rules “necessary to carry out the purposes” of the Georgia Administrative Procedure Act, would be limited under the change to creating rules “specificially authorized” in the law.

    In other words, the commission can only do stuff that legislators say they can do.

    The commission has adopted a variety of rules over the years to establish operating procedures and interpret the Ethics in Government Act. It remains unclear how the new language could affect such rule-making.

    Also last week, the General Assembly trimmed the commission’s 2010 budget by 30 percent, well below the level of cuts recommended by Gov. Sonny Perdue for all state agencies.

    Other language in Senate Bill 168 centralizes campaign finance reporting in Atlanta, so legislative candidates would no longer have to file a copy of their reports in their local courthouse. And candidates who file their disclosures electronically would no longer have to file an affidavit swearing that the reports are accurate. The commission has dinged a number of candidates with small fines for filing those affidavits late or not at all.

    The bill also requires the state Revenue Department to report legislators who are late on their state income taxes to the leadership of their respective chamber. Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham said earlier this year that 22 current lawmakers had not yet filed returns for 2007. Their names were not publicly disclosed.

    Gov. Sonny Perdue still must sign the bill for it to become law.

    Other ethics legislation failed this year, including:

    — SB 17, which would have reinstated registration fees for lobbyists. The fees were overturned years ago because they were applied inconsistently to non-profit groups.

    — SB 96, to require that city and county governments set up local ethics boards.

    — HB 855, a Hail Mary effort by Rep. Wendell Willard to severely reduce the limits for contributions to political candidates and tighten “revolving-door” restrictions on top state officials when they leave their government jobs.

     

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