UPDATE: Early this afternoon, the House Rules Committee amended the Senate bill (SB127) to delete any changes in early-voting procedures. The House then passed the amended bill on a 167-7 vote. The Senate stripped this language from a similar last week and now must decide whether to stand firm or let the House have its way. After dinner tonight, senators voted to stand firm.
March 31, 2015 — Once again, Georgia enters the final week of a legislative session with the prospects for an ethics bill up in the air.
The Georgia House and Senate have two business days left – today and Thursday – to act on a bill that would allow waivers of late campaign disclosure filing fees for thousands of local candidates.
Both chambers have passed similar versions of the bill. Twice, though, the House has tacked on a controversial amendment that could help re-elect legislators facing primary challenges from within their own party — earning it the nickname “the Legislative Incumbent Protection Act.”
Torry Lewis owes the state ethics commission $550 for late filings related to his campaigns for the state Legislature in 2006 and 2008. Some of the late fees were incurred, Lewis said, because he did not realize that the law at the time required filing disclosures with both state and county officials. His business also owes the state Department of Labor $1,695 for unpaid unemployment taxes.
March 26, 2013 — To Georgia legislators: As you struggle toward a compromise on ethics “reform,” here are five suggestions that would REALLY help to restore Georgians’ faith in government.
1) Limit lobbyist gifts to $25 per day, with a limit of four per year. That allows them to buy you a meal and a beer, but not the bottles of wine that really drive up the cost up of these $100 meals. And no gifts for spouses. Pay for those yourselves. Suck it up.
Nov. 26, 2012 — Legally, Georgians can’t spend campaign money raised for one political office to run for a different one. There’s a wide-open loophole, though, and veteran legislator Bill Hembree of Douglas County is only the latest to use it.
When Hembree left the Georgia House recently, he refunded $60,400 from his House campaign account to donors. Within a week, those same supporters gave all but $1,000 of the money back to Hembree to run for a just-opened Senate seat. Here’s the clever part: Rather than simply returning the most recent contributions, Hembree reached back as far as 11 years to choose the donors who got refunds.
State senators this week agreed to give the State Campaign Finance Commission a fraction of the sum needed to meet new requirements for enforcing ethics laws. The Senate recommended a $30,000 bump for the agency’s certified mail expenses, rather than the requested $130,000, and none of the $290,000 sought for processing and posting thousands of local candidates’ financial disclosures online.
Georgia lawmakers 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 Campaign Finance Commission $130,000 — which it doesn’t have — to notify candidates of possible violations. If the commission can’t afford to send those notices, it can’t enforce the law.
Legislative leaders are in discussions to hire a prominent lobbying firm to help redraw district lines for the Georgia House and Senate this year. Under the proposal, Troutman Sanders Strategies would work on reapportionment maps for the Legislature and the state’s delegation to Congress. The firm recently hired former House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, and chairman Pete Robinson serves on Gov.-elect Nathan Deal’s transition team.
Enforcers of Georgia’s ethics laws are stuck in limbo, if not outright paralysis — a legacy of the Glenn Richardson years at the state Legislature. They’re wondering whether new leadership under the Gold Dome cares enough to set things right. In 2009, on Richardson’s watch, the Georgia House pushed through language stripping the State Ethics Commission of its rule-making power. Now the panel needs to adopt new rules to carry out subsequent legislative changes to ethics laws. But, says executive secretary Stacey Kalberman said, “It appears that we don’t have authority to do anything.”
The top three Republicans in the Georgia House — all now going or gone from their seats — held on to power in part by giving $1.4 million since 2005 to other GOP candidates and causes. Then scandal brought down Speaker Glenn Richardson. Several dozen Georgia legislators from both parties want to cap donations from one candidate to another, but they may have an uphill battle.
Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission got the bulk of a hefty budget cut restored for 2011, but it will lose its longtime director, former Rockdale County District Attorney Cheryl Fisher Custer. She declined comment on whether her departure is linked to criticism of her $82,560 salary for part-time work. “It’s just time to move on,” she said.
What may be Georgia’s busiest ethics agency is also its smallest. In July, it may get even smaller. With the tiniest of budgets, the Judicial Qualifications Commission makes ends meet by not paying its investigator and lawyers. Now, the Georgia House proposes whacking the JQC’s budget by more than one-third to just $176,000. Legislative leaders say it’s about getting their money’s worth from the commission’s part-time director. And, they say, it’s definitely not about the agency’s charges against a judge from House Speaker David Ralston’s hometown.
Robert Proctor was a state ethics commissioner so briefly that he never got to attend a meeting. Even though he’s gone, commissioners were told today, he should not be forgotten. Proctor resigned for “health reasons” last week after insisting he had never been properly notified of an old ethics fine and therefore did not intend to pay it. In doing so, Proctor is “essentially giving this commission and the citizens of this state the rigid digit,” said Frank Moore, an attorney who has sparred with him in court.