Ralston on ethics: ‘Campaign finance was not part of that problem’
By JIM WALLS
April 5, 2010 — If House Speaker David Ralston’s ethics bill passes as written, Sen. Don Balfour and friends will have more than half a million reasons to thank him.
Balfour, who recently said he won’t seek re-election, started this year with a $562,000 campaign account. Soon, unless he changes his mind, the Snellville Republican can start deciding how, within the law, to spend all those greenbacks.
Georgia politicians would be severely restricted in spending leftover campaign cash under House Bill 920, authored by Rep. Wendell Willard. Transfers to candidates or political action committees would be capped at $10,000 and barred altogether from elected officials who decline to seek re-election.
The idea, Willard said, is to discourage a handful of legislators from “buying influence” by spreading around excess campaign funds. Candidates’ political accounts in Georgia generally exchange hundreds of thousands of dollars every election cycle.
With 41 co-sponsors, passage was at least a possibility. But Ralston’s plan swept those proposed limits – and several other reforms with broad bipartisan support — off the table.
In an interview, the speaker said his bill addresses topics – abuse of power, conflicts of interest, lobbyist disclosure — that surfaced late last year in the events that led to the resignation of former Speaker Glenn Richardson.
“It was my view … that campaign finance was not part of that problem,” he said.
That decision means a freer rein than in Willard’s bill for Georgia’s most powerful incumbents, who often amass hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations that they don’t really need for their own political campaigns.
“They raise a lot of money that goes into a campaign that they never really have to run,” said Bill Bozarth, executive director of the good-government advocacy group Common Cause Georgia. “You build up these war chests that are then used for other things.”
Ralston said he believes voters are the surest safeguard against campaign spending excesses and will oust any lawmaker who crosses the line.
“When they’re given information about contributions or expenditures … in a very open and transparent way,” he said, “I trust the judgment of the people as to where the limits ought to be.”
But Bozarth believes huge campaign accounts take that choice away from voters by intimidating potential opponents from even running. For a challenger within the same party, he said, “if you’re taking on an incumbent with a six-figure war chest … ain’t nobody going to give you money.”
Much of the money in Georgia politics flows from special-interest groups – everything from convenience stores to trial lawyers – to members of the legislative leadership and chairmen of key committees. The recipients often face no serious electoral challenge, so many return to office without needing to spend a dime.
Balfour, whose Rules Committee decides what bills proceed to a floor vote and which wither on the vine, gets a lot of this support. He’s raised $950,000 in campaign contributions since his last contested election in 2004, when he thumped his opponent with 75 percent of the vote.
Balfour’s campaign gave $95,000 to the Georgia GOP in that time. He’s also spent $99,000 on political consultants, $238,000 on golf events and other fund-raising costs, and $27,000 to rent $1,800-a-month condos during the past three legislative sessions.
The remainder is up for grabs. Balfour could give it to a political party or other candidates. Or he could give it to a political action committee, which has even fewer restrictions and may not even have to disclose how it’s spent.
That’s what Richardson did in December, after placing himself in charge of the PAC that benefited, with the $220,000 left in his campaign account. A couple years earlier, Gov. Sonny Perdue’s campaign passed $787,000 on to a new PAC he had created. (Richardson ’s transfer is the subject of a pending ethics complaint for allegedly failing to follow proper legal procedures.)
Ralston said he was wary of opening up campaign finance laws for an overhaul this session, but he may be willing to do so later. Willard said he plans to ask the speaker whether the current ethics bill might be amended to include some provisions of his bill.
And if that fails?
“I will continue trying,” Willard said. “You walk up and keep knocking on the door.”
For the record, here are the sponsors of House Bill 920:
Republicans (22): Amos Amerson, Burke Day, Harry Geisinger, Bill Hembree, Cecily Hill, Doug Holt, Penny Houston, Mike Jacobs, Mike Keown, Billy Maddox, Jay Neal, Randy Nix, Jay Powell, Matt Ramsey, Tom Rice, Tony Sellier, Richard Smith, Tommy Smith, Ron Stephens, Len Walker, Wendell Willard, John Yates
Democrats (18): Kathy Ashe, Stephanie Benfield, Ellis Black, Bob Bryant, Debbie Buckner, Rick Crawford, Elly Dobbs, Virgil Fludd, Mike Glanton, J. Craig Gordon, Sistie Hudson, Margaret Kaiser, Kevin Levitas, Mary Margaret Oliver, DuBose Porter, Barbara Massey Reece, Calvin Smyre, Brian Thomas
Independents (1): Rusty Kidd