Lawmakers leave ethics panel to run on fumes
By JIM WALLS
April 19, 2011 — Georgia legislators last week took back an extra $30,000 budgeted to enforce ethics laws in 2012, leaving the State Campaign Finance Commission yet again to do more paper-shuffling and less investigating.
Lawmakers’ parting gift before adjournment could cripple the commission’s capacity to look into allegations against elected officials, candidates and lobbyists. The agency also may not be able to collect even the most rudimentary fines, including late filing fees that accrue automatically.
“We really only have time to go after the most egregious of cases,” executive secretary Stacey Kalberman said. “There really is only so much enforcement we can do.”
The commission’s perpetually tight budget got even tighter last month when the General Assembly:
- Required that the commission use certified, return-receipt snail mail to notify filers of a potential problem with their disclosure reports. The agency cannot enforce payment of late fees or fines without such a notice.
- Rescinded a requirement that local candidates file financial disclosures by using an electronic form that makes the information instantly accessible online. Candidates for state office have been required to file those disclosures electronically for nearly a decade.
Certified mail will cost the commission $5.54 for each notice — money that the agency doesn’t have — rather than the 32 cents that a certified e-mail service would charge.
Kalberman asked Senate budget writers last month for $130,000 to cover the difference. The Senate countered with $30,000, which House-Senate conferees removed from the final budget passed last week for fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1.
“We’ll just use what little money we have until we run out, and then we just won’t be able to send [the notices] out,” Kalberman said today.
Processing local financial disclosures filed on paper, and making digital copies to be posted online, could cost an additional $290,000, the commission has said. No money was budgeted for that expense.
Local election officials were relieved of the responsibility of keeping those reports under a 2010 ethics law, leaving the commission as voters’ only resource to review those documents.
People who want to see those paper reports “will have to come to the commission,” Kalberman said, “or we’ll have to charge them for retrieving them and sending them to them.”
Kalberman says she hopes the commission will meet early next month to discuss the budget. No date has been scheduled.