April 3, 2015 — It was a simple little bill, meant to offer local politicians relief from a dysfunctional state ethics commission. In the end, though, lawmakers added enough baggage, stripped it out, then restored it that the bill died Thursday in the Georgia Senate.
So which is the more dysfunctional arm of state government?
The Legislature’s inaction underscores the dangers inherent in its reliance on last-minute backroom deals. Thousands of political candidates will remain in limbo over payment of more than $1.5 million in late filing fees, and the ethics commission — given the likelihood that lawmakers will revisit the issue in 2016 — has no incentive to press for collection.
The bill’s demise also spells the end, at least for now, of two controversial add-ons: Letting House and Senate party caucuses spend unlimited amounts to protect incumbents, and making outside agitators like Grover Norquist register and report their spending.
March 9, 2015 — A bill making it easier for political caucuses to help incumbent Georgia legislators get re-elected may be headed for a House vote this week.
The change would come just in time to protect the 70-some incumbent Republicans who could be targeted for Tea Party primary challenges for their votes last week for Rep. Jay Roberts’ $1 billion transportation funding bill.
Feb. 19, 2015 — Up to four years of penalties for filing late campaign disclosures could be excused under bills filed this week in the Georgia Legislature.
A 2010 law required candidates for city and county offices to file campaign finance reports online with the state rather than locally. Many candidates pushed back, and the mandate was later rescinded.
Now, citing faults and malfunctions of the state ethics commission’s online filing system, two legislators are sponsoring bills to waive the late fees — $125 and up — imposed on those local candidates.
Feb. 19, 2013 — A previously unnoticed loophole could allow Georgia politicians to reimburse themselves thousands of dollars from campaign funds without explaining how they spent the money. A key legislator shepherding House Speaker David Ralston’s ethics bills says the problem will be fixed. Details of the proposed solution, however, were not immediately clear. Without a fix, candidates could use political contributions any way they wanted by simply buying something with personal funds and getting their campaign accounts to pay them back.
Party caucuses in the Georgia Legislature are not exempt from limits on campaign spending, the State Campaign Finance Commission decided this week. The panel’s advisory opinion could curtail spending by the Democratic caucuses in the Georgia House and Senate, which paid more than $60,000 for mailings on behalf of Sen. Vincent Fort and Rep. Rashad Taylor against challengers in the party’s July 2010 primary.
Last month, the Senate Republican Caucus reported spending $22,000-plus to support Gwinnettian Garry Guan’s race for the state Senate. That would be a problem. Georgia law treats those expenditures as campaign contributions — capped at $2,400 per race. The remaining 20 grand would be illegal. Now, Republicans say that disclosure was a mistake, that the spending benefited other candidates as well. But that explanation only underscores other weaknesses in campaign finance practices.
Among the consequences of Georgia’s new ethics law: It will require more reporting by lobbyists and will probably thin out their herd, at least at the state level. It will relieve hundreds of the new governor’s appointees of the need to disclose even a smidgen about their personal finances. And, combined with budget problems, it will require the state ethics commission for the next several months to set aside one of its core missions, says its chairman, Patrick Millsaps.
The State Ethics Commission ruled today that political campaigns may not give unlimited amounts of donations to other campaigns, reversing a position it took just two weeks ago. On Aug. 17, the commission dismissed a complaint over a $10,000 contribution to Warner Robins mayoral candidate Chuck Chalk late last year, holding that state law might exempt political candidates from contribution limits. But the commission said today that other language in the statute caps those types of donations.
Attorney General Thurbert Baker has been asked to opine on whether political campaigns may make unlimited financial contributions to other campaigns. A decision by the State Ethics Commission last week raised the possibility that unopposed candidates with fat campaign accounts could give unlimited amounts to candidates in close races, creating a legal path to circumvent contribution limits.
Political action committees in Georgia operate with little oversight. They don’t have to report spending that’s not campaign-related. Nothing in campaign law addresses how PACs spend their money, the State Ethics Commission observed in 2008. “We did some advisory opinions because we were hoping people would get outraged enough and push for legislation,” said Rick Thompson, the agency’s former executive secretary. It hasn’t worked so far. Georgia lawmakers are sifting through a slew of ethics bills, but none address PAC spending.
Atlanta voters can choose between two big-name tax delinquents this fall among a large field of candidates hoping to replace longtime City Council member James Maddox. Property records are littered with dozens of liens, cancellations and transfers of debt to private collection services naming former Fulton County Commissioner A. Reginald Eaves and former City Councilman Morris Finley. Many of the debts remain unpaid. Each has accumulated liens totaling more than $20,000 since 2004.