Legislators reduce transparency, burden ethics commission
By JIM WALLS
Georgia lawmakers on Monday gave voters less access to information on local candidates’ finances, reversing part of a 2010 reform bill that became law just two months ago.
The legislators’ action could also cost the cash-strapped State Campaign Finance Commission an estimated $130,000 — which it doesn’t have — if it wants to notify candidates of potential problems with their disclosures. If the commission can’t afford to send those notices, it can’t enforce the law.
Rather than appropriate the money to cover that expense, the Georgia House has approved a 2012 budget that trims the agency’s spending by 8 percent
“This was a fix-it bill that didn’t fix a whole lot,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.
The double-whammy came as amendments to House Bill 232, which GOP Whip Ed Lindsey introduced Feb. 9 to clarify registration requirements for lobbyists.
Lindsey’s bill exempted sales people from having to register as lobbyists if they were trying to sell services or products to state agencies. The Senate Ethics Committee later added language excluding other professionals from registration requirements unless they spent more than 10 percent of their time trying to influence legislation.
But the Senate also added language making it optional for candidates in city and county elections to file their financial disclosures electronically. The amendment allows them to file instead by certified mail.
Open-government advocates had pushed for years for electronic disclosures for those offices, which would make the information available online as soon as a campaign worker pushes the button to submit it. Mail filings cannot be posted online until they are keypunched or digitally scanned, which means final disclosures due before an election might not be available until the balloting is over.
Those disclosures will no longer be available at courthouses or city halls, because the 2010 law relieved local election officials of the duty to keep that information.
“It obviously makes our transparency law less transparent,” Perry said.
The bill also prevents the campaign finance commission from sending e-mail notifications to candidates if their disclosures are late, incomplete or subject to a complaint. The commission instead would have to send those notices by certified mail or overnight delivery and could not open an investigation or impose a late fee without doing so.
E-mail notices would have cost the commission 32 cents apiece under a contract it signed recently. Certified mail with return receipt costs $5.54. Multiply the difference by the estimated 25,000 notices that the commission expected to send this year, and the additional cost would be $130,500.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed 2010 budget cuts the commission’s budget by just under $84,000.
The commission said today it will take a few days to study on it and then report back to the Legislature on the fiscal impact of HB232.
“It places a burden on the former Ethics Commission … by having to deal with a lot more paperwork and the increased cost of sending notices,” Perry said. “It is a huge problem.”