Foes of ethics enforcement cheer latest legislative ‘reforms’
I’ve been privileged to write a weekly Ethics Watch column, exploring issues of government transparency and accountability, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the past 14 months. This is my last such column. AtlantaUnfiltered.com needs your support — with news tips, financial donations or just spreading the word — so I can continue covering these topics.
By JIM WALLS
March 21, 2011 — Picture a few Georgia legislators in a karaoke bar, swaying back and forth and belting out the Stone’s “Under My Thumb.” Or maybe a little Cee Lo.
That should give you a good sense of the message that lawmakers sent last week to the State Campaign Finance Commission.
Last year, House Speaker David Ralston’s
staff cooked up an ethics “reform” bill in the back room that cruised through the General Assembly under a process that precluded any annoying attempts to amend it.
Open hearings and debate might have identified and corrected the significant flaws in the bill, many of which appeared to be the result of sloppiness in crafting the language. Instead, the bill passed virtually unchanged.
Now lawmakers have “corrected” those flaws with another backroom bill, again with no amendments allowed. In doing so, legislative leaders have managed to further marginalize the campaign finance commission, painting its members as wild-eyed and irresponsible for their recent interpretation of the 2010 law.
Three weeks ago, the commission opined that anyone paid by a “business entity” might have to register as a lobbyist if he or she is trying to influence legislation that might affect that business’s interests. That standard might apply to corporate CEOs spending a day or an hour with legislators or to nurses and teachers getting a paid day off to visit the Capitol.
The commissioners, all appointed by Georgia’s Republican leadership, acknowledged that legislators most likely did not mean to write the 2010 law that broadly and pleaded with them to fix it. “We did not like the opinion at all,” vice chairman Josh Belinfante said, but “we don’t get the ability to consider legislative intent.”
Key legislators nevertheless viewed the opinion as a wrongheaded infringement on citizens’ free speech that showed the commissioners had abused their discretion.
Rep. Ed Lindsey, chief sponsor of a bill tweaking another point in the 2010 ethics law, moved quickly in response. His bill had passed the House, so he started talking to Senate leaders about more changes. By the time House Bill 232 was presented to the Senate Ethics Committee, it:
- Created a mathematical formula to determine whether part-time lobbying is enough to warrant registration;
- Required the commission to send official notices by registered U.S. mail, rather than registered e-mail, which other state agencies use;
- Allowed thousands of candidates for city and county offices to file financial disclosures on paper, rather than online; and
- Reinstated a grace period for lobbyists to report on their activities before incurring a late fee.
“It basically went from a one-provision bill to a nine-provision bill,” Common Cause lobbyist Jim Kulstad said.
The Senate Ethics Committee ignored Common Cause’s request to allow time for a public hearing on the new provisions. Both chambers passed the bill quickly without allowing more amendments; Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law last week.
Lindsey said a hearing was not necessary because the changes were merely clarifying the intent of the 2010 law. “We were not looking with this bill to alter public policy,” he said.
The Campaign Finance Commission now says the changes could cost it $400,000 or more which, of course, it doesn’t have, particularly with another 8 percent cut proposed for its 2012 budget.
Lindsey says he’ll try to help with the funding, while not necessarily accepting the commission’s estimate of its need. “I’ve heard that figure, and I’ve also heard that figure may be inflated,” he said.
Without more money, the commission will be hard-pressed to do much more than shuffle voluminous amounts of paper. Ethics investigations are in jeopardy, and local candidates’ disclosures might not be available to voters until after the ballots are counted.
Moreover, a bid to restore the commission’s rule-making authority — the lack of which has hobbled its ability to enforce the law — has been scuttled indefinitely.
Foes of tougher ethics enforcement couldn’t have asked for more if they had planned for it to come out this way.