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Ralston on ethics: ‘Campaign finance was not part of that problem’



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





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5 Responses to “Ralston on ethics: ‘Campaign finance was not part of that problem’”

  1. Deborah Owens says:

    Can campaign to campaign contributions be limited as in HB 920, Williard’s bill? If so, though it is dead in committee, the live bill, SB 17, an alternate version without the same reforms, is now in the hands of House Speaker Ralston. They can amend the Senate version in the House, send it back to the Senate for approval and have some real campaign reform, if they choose. They have only a few legislative days left-but they have enough time to do it. First, they must have the will to reform and the legal ability. Does the recent Supreme Court Ruling: that money is speech and cannot be limited, impact PAC to PAC and campaign to campaign giving, etc? Can someone clarify this recent ruling and can someone clarify the types of controls that can be legislated on special interests? We must stop the purchase of legislation and regulatory controls by special interests.

  2. Deborah Owens says:

    Was/Is campaign finance part of Oxendine’s money laundering issues? Insurance Companies [oops, faux pas, doesn’t he regulate insurance companies], which move money from GA to an Alabama PAC and then send it to Oxendine [in disguise and in different checks on the same day], what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t everyone do it. How could it be wrong if everyone does it? Ralston needs a rehab for presentation of fairytales and then believing them himself–uh- I think they call it delusions! The emperor is “nekkid”== and oh, so fat!

  3. Common Cause Georgia says:

    Unfortunately, Speaker Ralston does not fully account for all past practices of corruption under the Gold Dome. Notably, he does nothing to account for campaign-to-campaign transfers, which former Speaker Richardson used to ensure there were no successful challenges to his power or ethical choices. Further, Richardson, as noted above, was transferring campaign funds until his dying political day, from one clenched fist to his PAC, which transfer was likely illegal as well as unethical.
    Speaker Ralston even fails to properly address the problems he recognizes, like lobbyist disclosures, because his bill carves out significant loopholes on what needs to be disclosed, exempting lobbyist spending on transportation and lodging for “meetings” with legislators. Increased frequency of lobbyist disclosures loses all meaning when the disclosures have more holes than substance.
    To answer the above Comments, there is no Constitutional barrier to regulating campaign-to-campaign transfers. Even in the recent Citizens United case, the Supreme Court upheld the logic that contributions to campaigns can be limited due to the potential of corruption. A contribution to a campaign is still a contribution, even if the donor is another campaign. The potential for corruption to the political process is still as potent.
    With regard to the alleged ethical and legal violations by candidate Oxendine, it is illegal (and unethical) to evade compliance to contribution limits by a fraudulent transfer of funds.

  4. Danny O says:

    For the record, Rusty Kidd is an independent, not a Republican. So Rep. Willard’s bill had signatures from both parties as well as the lone independent in the House.

  5. Deborah Owens says:

    For the record, Rep. Rusty Kidd organized a trip when he was a lobbyist, prior to becoming a GA Representative, for House of Representative Members, one of whom was Rep. Mark Burkhalter. The trip was to Dafuskie Island, S.C. Interestingly enough he took [and someone paid] 4 Cheetah Strippers to accompany the statesmen. So, When House Speaker Glenn Richardson left in his sex scandal, the House replaced him with Rep. Burkhalter who is better at sex scandals than Richardson. Gold Dome Caligula! Rusty Kidd has proposed his own “ETHICS” Bill which he admits will not pass.

    Richardson, Burkhalter, and Kidd are all deserving of new jobs. Bogus Bills are promoted as a sham, diversionary tactic.