Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Days before the 2011 Session of the Georgia General Assembly convened, Senate Republicans chose to strip Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle of much of his power over the body. Despite Cagle having just won re-election by a wide margin, Senators declared that the constitutional responsibilities of running the Senate should remain with them. A Committee On Assignments was reinstituted from the Mark Taylor era to dole out roles and prized committee chairmanships, controlled not by the Lieutenant Governor, but by the Senate Republican caucus.
The Senate spent the first year under their new structure at the height of dysfunction. Cagle used his remaining powers to cajole and undermine where possible. House members complained that they did not know who to negotiate with on major legislation. As the Lieutenant Governor publicly battled Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams and Majority Leader Chip Rogers, the constant force of power in the Senate remained Rules Chairman Don Balfour.
Virtually no legislation can pass the Senate without Balfour’s approval. His committee is the last stop before a bill can be voted on from the Senate floor. He can decide if a bill reaches that floor, under what terms (thus, rules), or significantly alter bills assigned to his committee. In a vacuum of power, Balfour became the Senate. It was a gift to him from his fellow caucus members.
Balfour is no stranger to gifts. He is the frequent recipient of meals, trips, and lodging from those who wish to curry his favor. During 2011 alone, Lobbyists spent $13,646 to entertain Balfour. One lobbyist name used to appear frequently. In 2008 and 2009, Marcia Rubensohn bought both meals and a hotel room for him. She also traveled with Balfour to Israel as part of a delegation of State Legislators, and was listed on the itinerary not as a lobbyist, but as a Senate staffer. When Atlanta news station WGCL attempted to question Balfour about his travel and expenses with Rubensohn, he hid in a Senate Anteroom and eventually escaped the Capitol through a back stairwell.
His campaign account is a trophy of his position of power, showing roughly $720,000 cash on hand as of the end of the year. Names of those interested in seeing their bills pass the Senate are frequently listed next to large dollar contributions on his disclosure report. It is from this account that Balfour pays for a $2,100 per month luxury midtown Atlanta condo plus related expenses, despite his home being in Snellville just 31 miles away.
Even after paying for this condo ostensibly to avoid a commute to his Gwinnett County home every day, Balfour has claimed not only his $173 per diem for the 50 days the Senate was in session last year and 123 days they were not, but mileage to and from his home each of those days. This includes mileage for days when lobbyists disclosed they were entertaining Balfour out of state.
We know all of the above because it was disclosed under various ethics laws in Georgia. Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Walls has done yeoman’s work categorizing the above information and much more on his watchdog website AtlantaUnfiltered.com. It’s worth a few minutes of your time.
The coup de grace from Balfour on ethics came during the final hours of the General Assembly last week. Balfour, along with Senators Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga and John Bulloch of Thomasville were assigned as Senate Conferees to work out language on a bill regarding individual information stored upon the sale of fishing licenses. Among the conferees was also Joe Wilkinson, Chair of the House Ethics Committee. They added completely unrelated language to the bill that proposed sealing records of public officials found guilty of some ethics violations. So much for transparency.
Furthermore, upon issuing their conference report to the Senate, they did not inform members of this totally new addition to the bill. Most legislators never have time to read conference reports, especially on the last day as bills are finalized and presented every few minutes. They must rely on the conferees to accurately depict changes they have agreed to from the bills that the Senators have presumably read.
By hiding language that eliminated transparency of ethics violators in a bill about fishing licenses, Balfour not only showed contempt for the citizens of Georgia, but for his fellow Senators .The bill passed the Senate with only 4 voting “no”, but was soundly defeated in the House once members learned what was actually in the conference report.
It should be noted that Balfour now faces an ethics complaint filed by one of his constituents in Gwinnett County regarding his expense reimbursements detailed above. It should also be noted that it was not filed by one of his peers – all of whom are aware of the same news reports, yet none of whom have been willing to publicly challenge him on it.
Balfour, first elected in 1992, recently told the AJC that he has been doing business the same way for 20 years, and he keeps getting re-elected. For the first 10 years, he was a member of the minority party fighting Democrats for the same self-serving patronage he has spent the last 10 years perfecting. He is now the poster child for the Georgia TEA Party Patriots and their drive for ethics reform.
By stripping Cagle of his power of committee appointments, Republican Leadership, The Committee On Assignments, and the Republican caucus in total now own the problem that is Don Balfour. They left him as Chairman of Rules despite past ethical issues. They have watched these transgressions continue, all the while allowing him to continue blocking ethics reforms.
Some Senators will face primary challenges this July. All incumbents should be required to defend the action of leaving Don Balfour as chairman of rules. All should be required to explain how the most powerful man in the Senate can put something non-germane into a bill in the last hours of a session that would block the public from ever learning which public officials have been found guilty of ethics violations.
There is a way out of this problem for Senate Republicans , but only if they want to govern as they have promised: The Senate Caucus must ask the Committee On Assignments to Remove Don Balfour as Rules Chair. Before Qualifying.
Anything less than Balfour’s removal equates to condoning his actions, and makes him a running mate for every Republican Senator in the 2012 election.
The Republican caucus took this power away from Casey Cagle. They must now be held accountable for the responsibilities that come with it.