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‘Incumbent-protection’ plan dies with 2015 ethics bill



April 3, 2015 — It was a simple little bill, meant to offer local politicians relief from a dysfunctional state ethics commission. In the end, though, lawmakers added enough baggage, stripped it out, then restored it that the bill died Thursday in the Georgia Senate.

So which is the more dysfunctional arm of state government?

The Legislature’s inaction underscores the dangers inherent in its reliance on last-minute backroom deals. Thousands of political candidates will remain in limbo over payment of more than $1.5 million in late filing fees, and the ethics commission — given the likelihood that lawmakers will revisit the issue in 2016 — has no incentive to press for collection.

The bill’s demise also spells the end, at least for now, of two controversial add-ons: Letting House and Senate party caucuses spend unlimited amounts to protect incumbents, and making outside agitators like Grover Norquist register and report their spending.

Originally, Senate Bill 127 would have set up a process to waive penalties levied on candidates for city and county office who filed their campaign disclosures late. Starting in 2011, those candidates had to submit such reports to the state rather than locally, and many complained the late fees weren’t fair because the commission’s online filing system didn’t work properly.

A House committee in March started tacking on more controversial amendments:

  • An exemption from campaign spending limits for political parties would have been extended to party caucuses in the General Assembly. The change, which would have allowed more campaign money to flow to legislators in primaries, became known informally as the “Incumbent Protection Act.”
  • A requirement that advocacy groups register with the commission and disclose their funding sources if they inject themselves into Georgia elections. The proposal was seen as a pushback against Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, who’d lambasted Republicans who voted for this year’s $1 billion transportation funding bill.
  • Language barring candidates from qualifying for public office if they owe uncontested fees for late filings.

The Senate stripped those amendments from its version of the bill, but the House added them back, leading to a conference committee Thursday to hammer out the differences.

The conferees emerged with a agreement to remove the first two amendments from the bill but leave the third one intact. The full House backed the compromise overwhelmingly, but Minority Leader Steve Henson objected to barring candidates from the ballot when the Senate debated the deal at 11:30 p.m. — half an hour before adjournment for 2015.

“That’s a pretty harsh penalty to restrict somebody from running for office,” Henson told his colleagues. “I have a deep concern to take [away] the right of the people to have a choice on who they elect … because of an administrative mistake.”

Backers of the compromise said candidates would be notified by certified mail if they owed late fees. They didn’t say (and perhaps didn’t even know) that the commission hasn’t been sending those notices because it couldn’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars in mailing costs.

Many legislators, Henson said, didn’t even know they had outstanding late fees. I can vouch for the accuracy of that statement because I’ve called at least six senators, including Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, to ask why they hadn’t paid up.

Cowsert, who ended up voting for the compromise, told me he’d already paid the fees but they hadn’t been removed. Most of the others said they didn’t know about them. (Seems like you’d know something was up if you filed a disclosure a year or more after it was due, but that’s a story for another day.)





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