Lawmakers down to wire on ‘Incumbent Protection Act’
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By JIM WALLS
UPDATE: Early this afternoon, the House Rules Committee amended the Senate bill (SB127) to delete any changes in early-voting procedures. The House then passed the amended bill on a 167-7 vote. The Senate stripped this language from a similar last week and now must decide whether to stand firm or let the House have its way. After dinner tonight, senators voted to stand firm.
March 31, 2015 — Once again, Georgia enters the final week of a legislative session with the prospects for an ethics bill up in the air.
The Georgia House and Senate have two business days left – today and Thursday – to act on a bill that would allow waivers of late campaign disclosure filing fees for thousands of local candidates.
Both chambers have passed similar versions of the bill. Twice, though, the House has tacked on a controversial amendment that could help re-elect legislators facing primary challenges from within their own party — earning it the nickname “the Legislative Incumbent Protection Act.”
A Senate committee stripped the language from the House bill last week. Two days later, a House panel added it back to the Senate’s version. Neither bill is on the House or Senate calendar today, the penultimate day of the 2015 legislative session.
The language in question would allow party caucuses in the House and Senate to spend unlimited amounts to help candidates fend off challenges in party primaries. Observers believe Republican lawmakers, particularly in the House, could use the help if they get “primaried” for supporting a $1 billion transportation funding bill that’s regarded in some circles as an unwarranted tax hike.
This is why the ethics bill is important: Currently, donors can only give $2,600 per election to help elect a candidate for the Legislature. Political parties can exceed that limit with so-called “multi-candidate” advertising that advocates for more than one candidate, but bylaws bar both parties from backing one candidate over another in a primary.
Legislative caucuses, though, can pick sides in a primary. Extending the multi-candidate exemption to party caucuses would therefore allow them to target individual primary races with as much money as they could raise.
Caucuses aren’t legally required to report who’s given them money to fund a multi-candidate mailing until they hit a certain spending threshold. There is no limit to the amount a caucus accepts from a single donor. Caucuses may also accept political donations during the legislative session; individual lawmakers cannot because it might look like the donor has paid them to influence a bill.
Democratic caucuses don’t even file separate disclosures; their spending is reported as part of the Democratic Party of Georgia’s.
Backers of the caucus exemption, such as sponsor Rep. Barry Fleming, say the bill is about transparency rather than incumbent protection. If caucuses can pay for multi-candidate advertising, he says, the public will know about it from their campaign disclosures.
In the past, though, the parties’ spending on multi-candidate ads has been disclosed as payments to political consultants or printers without mention of specific candidates. Typically, such ads feature one candidate prominently with the names of a few others to be found only in the fine print.
More than $1.5 million in unpaid late filing fees just for 2012 and 2013 is riding on passage of the original language in the bill. Candidates in city and county elections accrued the fees when they were required to file campaign disclosures with the state rather than locally. Critics say computer problems that plagued the state’s online filing system were so pervasive that the late fees should be forgiven.
Data obtained from the state ethics commission shows about two-thirds of the late fees were for disclosures that were never filed at all. Only $142,000 — or less than 10 percent of the late fees — have been paid.
Candidates could apply for a waiver of the penalty and would get a “rebuttable presumption” that the state’s computer problems caused the late filing. Under the House version of the bill, the state could only collect the fee by proving that the candidate “knowingly and willfully” refused to file – an almost insurmountable standard, short of a signed confession. The Senate version would only require “a preponderance of the evidence” that a filing was late.
Other language in the House version of the bill that’s not in the Senate’s would forbid candidates for running for office if they owe late filing fees, unless they’ve filed an appeal. The House version would also cut back on early voting by one week and limit weekend hours.