Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Last night, the center of the American political universe was in New Hampshire, where many of those who wish to be the Republican nominee for President lined up for CNN’s John King to disclose whether they like Coke or Pepsi, Elvis or Johnny Cash, or perhaps the most pressing matter, that former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has a distinct preference for deep dish pizza.
Sadly, at times this is what modern American politics has become. A major national news organization felt the need to trivialize – though they said it was to personalize – a time set aside where there was a captive group who actually wanted to learn distinct policy difference that could affect governance going forward.
Back at home, however, the major political story of the day barely received coverage. The Georgia Ethics Commission, recently renamed the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, has suffered ongoing budget cuts and now operates on 60% of the appropriations it received in 2008.
Furthermore, the administrative burdens of accepting and tracking candidate and elected official disclosures have increased. The result is that the commission has often complained that they barely have sufficient staff to receive the paperwork they are required to track, and have no money left over for ethics investigations and enforcement.
Georgia ethics watchdogs openly wonder if that is by design.
Georgia’s system of ethics enforcement is largely a self-policing mechanism, with House and Senate leadership generally responsible for investigating the other should a complaint be filed and require their disposition. Much like the cold war when each side had nuclear missiles aimed at each other, the potential of a pro-active ethics first strike was generally restrained by the concept of mutually assured destruction.
During the 2008-09 sessions of the General Assembly, Georgia enjoyed a Speaker who was having an affair with a lobbyist representing a utility for whom he introduced a bill to provide a new pipeline, a chairman of a powerful committee who brought his favorite lobbyist as a date to a Chamber of Commerce dinner while his wife was safely at home, another Chairman who hid in a Senate anteroom when a reporter wanted to question why a lobbyist joined him on a junket to Israel and was listed on the program as a Senate staffer, and yet another representative who threatened to shut down a university when they fired his lobbyist girlfriend.
Time after time, as each of the above issues – and more- were raised, the answer came back from members of the general assembly of “I’m not sure any laws were broken” or “We can’t let a bad apple paint everyone with a broad brush.” Yet one who complained openly about the “broad brush” refused to tell his constituents at a town hall meeting that it was wrong for a Representative to have a sexual relationship with a lobbyist who had business before his committee. Responses like his, and de-funding of effective enforcement, help earn a broad brush.
As ethics became a central campaign issue during the 2010 primaries, the standard party line answer in defense of the status quo was that the solution was to elect “honest people”. Using a past career analogy, one may suggest that banks go out of their way to hire honest people, but also have strict internal controls, audits, and enforcement mechanisms not because their people become less honest, but because they know the temptation when faced with an open vault full of cash is great, even to the honest.
Understanding the consequences of being dishonest is a great motivation to stay clean. Allowing unlimited temptation without consequences is a path to ethical ruin. Georgia continues on this path.
Yesterday, two top staffers of the Ethics Commission left due to budget cuts. One of the positions was eliminated, while the other was told to accept a 30 percent pay cut and balked. Details differ on exactly what transpired, but the net result is that because of continued budget cuts, the bare bones agency charged with enforcing Georgia’s ethics rules is without an Executive Director and Chief Deputy today because of continued elimination of resources for oversight and enforcement.
The vault of temptation remains open for Georgia’s elected officials. Citizen legislators must rely on outside income to make a living, yet they face the same economic realities and hardships the bulk of Georgians are facing. There are many ways to make money as an elected official if ethics are overlooked. And yet from the state Ethics Commission, there are two less people looking today.