With Power Comes Responsibility

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.

37 comments

  1. CobbGOPer says:

    And yet, despite all the evidence, nothing of consequence will happen to Don Balfour.

    And that is precisely why our ethics laws need an overhaul.

  2. KD_fiscal conservative says:

    Sure, you can go after Balfour, but the problem is much deeper than that. We haves tax system at the state and federal level that allows BOTH parties to help out their buddies. Then they lie and claim they just “reduced taxes” or ” created jobs” or use some other political consultant approval retoric to sell their plan, the party machine go out defending the plan as they repeat the whole procress again and again.

    • John Konop says:

      I agree!!!!!!!!!! We need a tax system that eliminates all of the special interest write-offs. We could make it simple, a few levels based on income and end all write-offs. Also replace payroll taxes and medicare tax with a national sales tax.

      This would not only help the economy, but it was end the BS………………….

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “There is a way out of this problem for Senate Republicans”

    Yes, there is a way out of this problem for Senate Republicans:

    Proclaim that they are each the most pro-life conservative in the primary (if they even have any primary opponents) while blaming Obama, Liberals and the national Democrat Party in the General Election.

    There, ethics problem SOLVED!

    Hey! Even I could run for the State Senate (and win) with that strategy.

  4. Bull Moose says:

    Charlie I wouldn’t eat at a Waffle House any time soon…

    I was going to write my State Senator about this Balfour stuff, but it doesn’t do any good. They are all little sheep (with very few exceptions – McKoon among the exceptions) who do what they are told.

    If they keep it up much longer, the stench of scandal is going to send them all out on their ears.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      I agree as this clearly is not heading in a very positive direction.

      Though with no opposition party and increasing voter apathy, this bunch can probably hang on for quite awhile as only the most ardent Republican voters will come out to vote while every one else is too disgusted to even show up for to the polls to cast a vote.

  5. Bull Moose says:

    Let me add that it’s sad that all of these people who serve up there turn a blind eye to the thievery of Don Balfour.

  6. View from Brookhaven says:

    Next time Charlie requests his hashbrowns “all the way”, they’re gonna throw some rat poison in there, for good measure.

  7. debbie0040 says:

    Atlanta Tea Party actually has a pretty strong candidate that is very interested in running against Balfour. He just needs to be convinced he can raise enough money to run a good race. We estimate it will take 15 – 20% of what Sen. Balfour has..

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      It’s about time that Balfour got called on his blatant BS.

      Good luck.

    • seekingtounderstand says:

      You need to worry about Fake Tea Party Canidates put in by the Republican Machine to trim off votes. This is happening and you do nothing about it. Why is that?

      • debbie0040 says:

        Which candidate are you referring to? Seeking, do you work for a candidate in the new Congressional district? Are you a political consultant seeking to help your client? It is not hard to see what direction you are going in…

    • Romegaguy says:

      And you have such a good track record of picking candidates Debbie. How’s Lt Gov Ralph Reed doing these days?

      • Calypso says:

        Hey, we need all the help we can to get rid of Balfour. I was against Reed, to put it mildly, but there is only one victor per race. If the TEA Party folks can aid in Balfour’s removal, I say more power to ’em.

        I will send a check to Balfour’s primary opponent.

  8. Medic8310 says:

    Isn’t this not only unethical, but illegal? Wouldn’t it constitute as fraud or something?

  9. seekingtounderstand says:

    Let’s all chip in and hire Sheriff Arpaio to investigate and then he can arrest them all.
    These guys are not that smart, and yet not one person can figure out how to stop them.
    What does that say about us?

  10. Dave Bearse says:

    The GOP Senate Causus that controls the Senate conducts its business privately, notwithstanding blather about transparency. Nothing’s going to happen until actions have consequences, and as Sunday liquor sales saga demonstrated, this can go on for years.

    Even then Balfour, like Richardson, is merely a symptom. Elimianting a symptom makes one feel better, but does nothing to remedy the underlying sickness.

    • brasstownhigh says:

      I’m all for you pushing ethics legislation. I’m for any citizen getting involved with an issue they’re passionate about. But don’t attempt to pass Senator Chip Rogers off as a golden boy of “rejecting lobbyist gifts”.

      For the past three years, Chip Rogers has been number 1 in the senate for accepting lobbyist gifts. Last year he accepted $12,099. In 2009 he accepted over $16,000 in lobbyist gifts and tickets.

      http://www.wsbtv.com/news/news/local-govt-politics/2-investigates-10000-club/nHWW8/

      I suggest you find a new poster child.

      • debbie0040 says:

        Brass, what is it with your attitude? We are not pushing anyone as a poster child but it is a start. We will highlight and praise elected officials that stop accepting lobbyist gifts, so what is your beef?. We will continue to push for ethics reform legislation until it is passed.

        • brasstownhigh says:

          I think you read the attitude into it. I’m a laid back person – I don’t have attitude or beef.

          I’m saying it’s laughable that Senator Chip Rogers is being praised for “rejecting gifts” for the past 2.5 months of 2012 – when he’s been the biggest fat cat of them all year after year after year. Out of the hundreds of legislators, surely there is a better poster child for rejecting gifts than Senator Chip Rogers. Maybe someone who hasn’t averaged over $12,000 a year in lobbyist gifts.

          But Chip Rogers is your boy, so it makes sense.

          • debbie0040 says:

            You clearly have a chip on your shoulder. If someone in House or Senate Leadership, or for that matter, a legislator refuses to accept lobbyist gifts we will praise them as well. Please inform me if someone else has and we missed it.. If not – then back off – you are out of line. We are not holding anyone us as a poster boy. We are pointing to what we hope is a trend.. It has to stop somewhere and we hope this will encourage others to do the same… Everyone has a chance to step to the plate and start just saying no to lobbyist gifts. We are going to ask legislators to pledge to accept no lobbyist gifts until meaningful ethics reform is passed. That is all this is, nothing more.

            • brasstownhigh says:

              Please tell me you intentionally placed that pun in your first sentence. That’s classic.

              Back off form what? I’m out of line? This isn’t Red China, Debbie – folks can have different views in the comment section of a blog. Plus, I’m just stating facts.

              Let’s recap what I’ve said.

              1. I support your drive for ethics legislation
              2. I support citizens being involved in their government
              3. For years, Chip Rogers has accepted the most lobbyist gifts and praising him for a short hiatus from it is odd….especially because we’re only 3 months into the year.

              There’s no reason any of that should offend you. You seem really tense.

              I’ll tell you what – if at this time next year Chip Rogers has still rejected all lobbyist gifts and dinners, then I will celebrate him as an ethics champion! Until then, I’ll remain more bearish on the situation.

    • Harry says:

      I’m wondering if by refusing to accept lobbyist gifts, certain legislators would be viewed by the leadership as being Goody Two-Shoes who are unwilling to play the game and thereby make the others look bad.

      These guys need to start appearing to be more chaste than Caesar’s wife. Just my opinion, take it or leave it.

  11. debbie0040 says:

    If enough the majority of GOP Senators wanted ethics reform, leadership (Williams, Rogers) would be forced to go along with it. The GOP Senators elect their leadership.. The same in the House. If the majority of GOP House members wanted ethics reform, Ralston would be forced to allow it to pass. Sometimes leadership acts as bad cops taking the blame for stopping legislation the legislators don’t want but don’t want to go on record as opposing. They just claim they would vote for it if leadership allows it to be bought up for a vote, when in fact they really don’t want it..

    Lt. Gov. Cagle has been open to ethics reform this past session

    • Dave Bearse says:

      Yeah, Cagle was so open to ethics reform this past session that he assigned the ethics bill to Don Balfour’s Rules Committee, where of course the legislation was promptly buried.

  12. Bull Moose says:

    I’d be curious to know how many people have contacted their State Senator about the ethics legislation that passed at the last minute in the State Senate. I’d gather to say not many.

    And the reason why?

    Because so much of them just offer BS that makes it pointless unless of course you’re carrying a fat check and then you get their attention or have some sort of gift that you want to give them.

    It’s sad really. Adults should act better, or we should demand better.

    • benevolus says:

      I happen to like the ward/alderman system used many places (including historically in Atlanta.) Chicago has 50 wards, so pretty much every neighborhood has a ward, and those wards usually have offices with regular hours so if you have an issue you can go see somebody and try to get some help.
      But nooo, that would be too expensive for us here, so instead we choose insular strangers who usually have no one’s interest in heart but their own.

      • CobbGOPer says:

        A ward/alderman system would dilute their power too much, so that will never be allowed. They have no desire to spread the corruption largesse around to even more legislators.

  13. The Dabler says:

    A ward system? Are you serious?

    You’ve seen what Chicago aldermanic offices act as, right? They are the central distribution points for party politician to distribute their graft and corruption across the entire city…

    …tisk, tisk…

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