Today’s Courier Herald Column:
When considering the uphill battle of ethics reform, it must be considered that all votes within the Georgia General Assembly are not created equal. A reform minded newcomer’s vote might look like it counts the same when the final tally is up in lights, but the reality is that there are those whose seniority and committee position have votes that are effectively more equal than others.
Take for instance that of Senator Don Balfour of Snellville. The Gwinnett County Republican is perhaps the most powerful single member of the Georgia Senate, yet most Georgians have likely never heard of him. Balfour chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee which is the last stop virtually all bills must make before proceeding to the floor for a Senate vote. If a bill is not passed by Rules – or even called up for a vote – then it is effectively killed in committee.
You cannot overestimate the difficulty of passing a bill over the objections of Senator Balfour. Senators and Representatives are keenly aware of this fact, and go out of their way to not offend the prickly Senator from Gwinnett.
Two years ago when the House was wrapped in various scandals involving leadership and lobbyists, Balfour made a few headlines of his own. He traveled to Israel with a female lobbyist who was listed on an events program not as a lobbyist, but as a Senate staffer. He quite literally hid in a Senate anteroom to avoid an Atlanta TV reporter who wanted to ask about this, and her disclosed expenses on his behalf for multiple lunches and a hotel room.
Balfour’s expenses also came under fire from Atlanta Investigative Reporter Jim Walls, who now operates the AtlantaUnfiltered website. Walls noted he had the “phattest crib in the Georgia Legislature”, spending $7,750 for condominium rental during the 2010 General Assembly session. This despite Balfour living just over 30 miles from his office at the Gold Dome.
So, with the legislature rocked with major ethics scandals during 2010 and Balfour having one of the leading names associated with said scandals that made headlines, what is a Senator to do to show he got the reform message? Why double down of course.
Jim Walls is back with a couple of reports detailing in excruciating detail the expenses Balfour claims from both taxpayers and from his campaign account to supplement his Senate Salary of roughly $17,000 per year. Walls notes that Balfour now rents a $2,100 per month luxury midtown high rise condominium year round, paid for with campaign funds. Despite his “Phat Crib” award just two years earlier, Balfour’s explanation to Walls was “I’ve stayed in terrible places. I’m not going to do that again.”
But despite having such a nice condo just up Peachtree Street from the Capitol, Balfour claims mileage to and from his Gwinnett County home plus a $170 per diem allowance every day the legislature was in session – plus 103 days they were not. All paid for by taxpayers. Walls reports that mileage was charged despite Balfour showing lobbyists entertaining him in other states. That’s a problem even if you do want to believe Balfour chose to drive by his phat midtown condo each day on the way to his home in Gwinnett.
Opponents of ethics reform at the Capitol often state that transparency is key, as when voters can see abuses they can vote those members out of office. Yet those who are able to draw the biggest gifts and gratuities also usually have the power to command the largest campaign war chests.
Anyone wanting to make the case that Balfour should be removed over his flaunting of campaign and per deim expenses will have to combat the over $719,000 he has in his campaign account as of the end of 2011 reporting period. They’ll also have to convince voters that they will be better off if they trade the most powerful Senator under the Dome for a freshman with little real clout. Politicians who claim voters with transparency can take on the heavily bankrolled uber-powerful are mocking the very system which they profit from yet refuse to change.
Those who are fighting to reform ethical standards within Georgia’s government face an uphill battle. The hill is significantly taller from those who attempt to do so from the outside at the ballot box. The system is designed for self-policing, but few wish to be the arresting officer over those who have a gate through which all legislation must pass.
Transparency is required for an ethical system, but it alone is insufficient for ethical government. The Georgia legislature must create a system independent of their control to investigate and if necessary prosecute abuses. But for these changes to occur, legislation would have to pass the committees of those who currently benefit from this broken system the most. Uphill, indeed.