Legislators, how about new ethics goals for 2011?
Everyone should make resolutions for the New Year, if only to have new goals. In that spirit, we offer 10 suggestions for House Speaker David Ralston — and whoever’s running the state Senate this week — to strengthen ethics laws and enforcement in 2011:
1) Please restore rule-making authority to the Ethics Commission. The House initiated steps in 2009 to strip that power, leaving the commission unable to adopt new rules or rescind old ones. Now it’s just a paper tiger. Last month, fearing a challenge to its limited authority, the panel allowed independent political committees to keep their financial backers secret. Show a little trust in the professionals you’ve asked to enforce campaign finance laws.
2) Give the commission the money to audit campaign finance reports for accuracy and completeness. State law assigns the commission that task, but its single auditor can’t possibly review the 68,000 filings expected this year from candidates and lobbyists. Don’t use budget problems as an excuse. A few hundred thousand dollars would go a long way. (I can help you find the money. Eliminating food and lodging reimbursements for legislators living in metro Atlanta, for example, would save close to $1 million a year.)
3) Ban or limit cash transfers from campaign accounts to political action committees. An incumbent who spends campaign money for personal benefit is breaking the law, but he can use the cash any way he wants if he first transfers it to a political action committee. You could name the bill after former House Speaker Glenn Richardson, who used this loophole to clean out his campaign account on leaving office a year ago. We may never know where all of that $220,000 wound up.
4) While you’re at it, why not require political action committees to report how they spend their money? Candidates for elected office must report every significant expenditure, but PACs only need to disclose campaign contributions, and then only if they give more than $25,000 in one year.
5) Toughen fines for ethics violators for real. Last year the Legislature hiked fines, but only for repeat offenders caught breaking the very same rule more than once. How often does that happen? Practically never. If you want to crack down on ethics violators, jack up the fines that matter.
6) Clean up language governing candidates for city and county offices. This year they’ll start filing campaign disclosures with the Ethics Commission, but some might argue that fuzzy statutory language makes it voluntary if they raise less than $20,000.
7) Make sure lobbyists report everything they spend at the Capitol. They or their clients spend tens of thousands of dollars a year — much of which is never disclosed — entertaining lawmakers’ spouses with luncheons, sightseeing and shopping trips, for instance. What’s the harm in public disclosure of those expenses?
8) Clarify procedures for handling complaints to the House or Senate ethics committees. The law has been interpreted to mean that complainants must have firsthand knowledge of a legislator’s alleged conflict or misconduct, even though the statute doesn’t say that. It’s routinely used to dismiss such complaints. If you don’t want to handle these allegations, just say so and stop the pretense that the process has any practical use.
9) Require financial disclosure by department heads and members of state boards and commissions. You struck that requirement a year ago, under the theory that it discouraged business people from undertaking state service. Do we really want top government leaders who won’t disclose their property holdings or business interests (most of which are public record anyway)? Not me.
10) Require public disclosure if lawmakers do business with special-interest groups regarding upcoming legislation. As we noted recently, an arts advocacy group paid Rep. Earl Ehrhart’s consulting business $40,000 in 2009 for advice on getting a bill passed. Some would say the public was already paying him a salary for that service. If legislators can charge private interests on the side for that work, at least let us know about it.
Transparency is the common thread in most of these ideas. We hear you talk the talk about openness in conducting the people’s business. Now it’s time to walk the walk.