Those Who Benefit Unlikely To Allow Change

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.


  1. CobbGOPer says:

    I had no idea Senator Balfour was ripping off us taxpayers to such an amount. I knew he was a coward, but I didn’t know he was a thief as well.

    • Calypso says:

      Unfortunately, I’m in Fat Boy’s state senate district. I’ve been wishing his demise for years. This only adds fuel to the fire.

      • CobbGOPer says:

        I mean honestly, if I were putting fake mileage and other fake expenses in my company expense reports, I would be fired – and justly.

        But apparently Senator Balfour thinks he’s ‘entitled’ to do it, since he gets paid such a paltry salary from the General Assembly to be a PART-TIME legislator. If it’s such a burden to your bank account, Senator, then perhaps you should step aside. It’s not my responsibility as a taxpayer to subsidize a swank apartment for you 30 MINUTES FROM YOUR OWN HOUSE.

        • Calypso says:

          Actually, Charlie’s article says the apartment is paid for with his campaign funds. But yeah, the rest is BS. Balfour had some primary opposition last cycle, but as reported, he has somewhere near $1 million in his campaign chest. Hard for a challenger to overcome.

          I wish he’d go back to his griddle at Waffle House.

          • CobbGOPer says:

            “…the apartment is paid for with his campaign funds.”

            And yet, somehow I don’t think the apartment is being used for ‘campaign’ purposes. I thought such a setup was illegal, but what am I thinking? This is Georgia, where nothing is illegal if you hold elected office.

  2. Charlie says:

    First, apologies to Jim Walls (not Qualls – different person entirely that I referenced in the original version).

    I’ve added links to three of Jim’s stories where he goes into excruciating detail of the expenses charged by Balfour, as well as the sources of most of his campaign contributions. There are links to the expense vouchers where mileage and perdiem are collected, signed by Senator Balfour as well.

    If this topic interests you, each is well worth clicking through for the read.

  3. saltycracker says:

    (Politicals must be time dated like food or they become spoiled,
    the good ones can run for a different office)

    • CobbGOPer says:

      I’m for term limits too, but I couldn’t even convince Josh McKoon of their value – and he’s the (I believe still lone, but perhaps they’ve added a couple) sponsor of the ethics reform bill in the Senate. The sad part is that Josh’s reasoning sounded eerily close the the arguments Ralston, Balfour and the other good ole boys give against the ethics bill (and the gift limits): “We don’t need term limits because the voters are the term limit, if they decide you need to go then they vote you out.” Not entirely unlike “the gifts have to be reported and the voters can access those reports and then decide at the ballot box whether they want to punish said politician for taking gifts.”

      Like the TSPLOST, these politicians want to turn the decisions around on US in the end: “Well if Senator X was so corrupt, why didn’t you guys vote him out? It’s not my fault y’all left him in there. Now excuse me, I have a dinner with Jay Morgan, he’s honoring my years of service to the people of Georgia tonight at New York Prime, just like he did for me three times last week.”

    • CNFPP says:

      Some voters treat bad politicians like I how I treated expired food in college. I would take it out of the fridge, smell it, make a weird face, and then I’d put it back in the fridge for someone else to deal with.

  4. southernpol says:

    The entire Rules committee system allows for this to happen. Why should a bill, if it’s passed out of committee, have to sit in the hands of one Senator to decide if it can come to the floor?

    The system is flawed. Whoever who sits in that chair will have the same power/benefits.

  5. Three Jack says:

    Balfour is the poster child for all that is wrong with the GOP dominated legislature. I was debating whether to attend mass precinct meeting this Saturday to get back involved, but what’s the point. These GOPers are more corrupt than the dems they replaced a few years back.

    Thanks for posting this Charlie. Too bad so few of Balfour’s constituents will see it and react accordingly by forcing fatboy to retire.

    • amor patriae says:

      Unfortunately, the Don is counting on you to stay home. And if you do, he wins. Again and again and again.

      I said it the other day (in a different post), and I’ll say it again: it’s about character. And until we elect more leaders who have it, we will continue to lament the debacle that is our G.A.

    • CobbGOPer says:

      Dude I was a precinct chairman in Cobb. But what’s the point anymore? All I am to the party leaders is a donation check and a pair of hands to be directed from on high. It’s all just a big club to those people, and the rest of us can participate – for the right price. It’s a vehicle to perpetuate the control of this state by the same people who controlled it when the Democrats ran things. Same people, new party. No thanks.

      I’ll stay home rather than vote for either of these useless parties anymore.

  6. OleDirtyBarrister says:

    Balfour is a yankee from New Jersey, it’s their way more than it is the way of Georgia. I’d rent a U-Haul for him to help him back home.

    Unfortunately, none of the G.A. has led during the hard times and been the first to take cuts. But they expect teachers and other state troughfeeders to take the cuts. All of the metro members of the G.A. could and should give up the per diems and just take the salary, and all of them could/should have taken salary cuts.

    As for stronger rules, I can somewhat understand the reluctance to make changes because of unintended consequences. What happened to Sara Palin at the state level and Newt at the federal level and the kind of money involved in defending themselves as well as the time and distraction would frighten even an honest politician. I’m not suggesting either of the aforementioned were angels, were culpable, or unfairly targeted, but they did not do everything they were accused of and they had to spend a trainload of money to defend themselves.

    • objective says:

      did you know that on the bridge from NJ to NYC, you pay the toll not to enter NYC, but for the privelege of leaving NJ…?
      i kid. all us yankees are equally detestable- for unidentified, yet identical, flaws.
      like being corruption-prone, which happens nowhere else.
      wait, what was this article about?

      politics as usual does not recognize the 34th parallel or whatever line supposedly separates the Good Ole Boys from the Bad Ole Boys

  7. oldman45 says:

    It’s like Groundhog Day all over again…every day Balfour wakes up and can’t believe how important he is! That’s the way most of those in the legislature think…they don’t realize most folks never even know when they are in or out of session…all most people want is for the dang government to leave them alone! Term limits is the only solution…unless you really let the GBI investigate the whole bunch and start prosecuting them!

  8. saltycracker says:

    A most depressing and forthright post on the state of Georgia politics and the self-serving people associated with it.

    Public approval is at low levels and what is left might be pandering misidentified as respect.

    • Calypso says:

      An ethics bill and the Chairman of the Rules Committee go together about as harmoniously as chocolate and anchovies.

    • Three Jack says:

      From Bookman’s column, “As spokesman Ben Fry noted last week, when Cagle served as a state senator he voted in favor of legislation that would have set a limit of $50 on gifts from lobbyists. Unfortunately, the bill failed.”

      Yea, you tell em Ben. When Cagle was part of the minority party, he stood tall for gift limits based on his core convictions. What has he done for the past 5 years as Lt. Gov.? Did he re-introduce the $50 ban…hell no because his party rules now.

  9. oldman45 says:

    Democrat, Republican…it doesn’t make any difference…they all want everything to change until they get in charge…then they all do the same stuff…take all the lobbyist handouts and scam the people who elected them. The whole blame system is corrupt. It’s even worse in Washington. There are very few real servants of the people anymore!

  10. debbie0040 says:

    We had one of our tea party activists go to the Gold dome one day this past week and he was thoroughly disgusted with what he saw. He said he would have felt cleaner had he gone to a whorehouse.

    Many Republican legislators say they want tough ethics reform but are strongly opposed to caps on lobbyist gifts. Some have come out and said that they deserve the gifts because they are underpaid. some have said that the Democrats enjoyed the lobbyist gifts when they were in control and now is the the Republicans time to enjoy the gifts.
    Many won’t come out and oppose caps on lobbyist gifts but come up with excuse after excuse on why they don’t support it. One is that other states have tried it and it does not work. Funny thing is we have spoken to officials in those states mentioned and they said it has worked.

    Ethics reform is legislation that legislators don’t want to come out and vote against or oppose so they come upu with inventive ways to kill the legislation. Last year when we introduced this legislation, we were told that there was not enough time to study the bill and no one would introduce it, so it was killed by not being introduced. We introduced it early this time. This year we found courageous legislators that introduced it and signed on as sponsors and the opposition is finding other ways to kill it without voting on it. They keep wanting to change it and stall, stall, stall when we meet their demands. These legislators have attacked Rep. Tommy Smith that introduced the bill. They are employing the old Clinton strategy that if you cannot kill the message, then kill the messenger. Another excuse we have heard are that we should be spending political capital on this ethics reform bill because it would hurt other bills that we care about . I have heard one legislator is thinking about introducing a watered down version of the bill so he can claim that he tried to do something about ethics reform. He knows full well that it won’t have time to pass and that is his intention. They are hoping that they can then say we have tried but there wasn’t enough time as there were other pressing matters.

    The bottom line is that the tea party is fully aware of the tricks legislators use to kill bills without voting on them.

    Ethics reform will be an issue in elections this year and the Republican Leadership is extremely foolish if they let the Dems grab the mantle of ethics reform. They think they can point to one hand where they passed bills that are important to conservatives and hope conservatives don’t pay attention to the other hand that is taking gifts from lobbyist. It was a strategy the GOP employed nationally under W and looke where it got them. Unless things truly change under the Gold Dome, it will just be a matter of time before the GOP is no longer in control..

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