Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia’s State Senate Republicans are having difficulty with the word independent. But when your re-election is on the line, trivial definitions of words and laws don’t seem to matter much. After all, if you make the laws, you can follow the ones you want, apparently.
The Senate Republican Trust is a Political Action Committee designed to raise money on behalf of incumbent Republican Senators to aid re-election efforts outside of individual campaigns. The existence and use of such PACs is nothing new.
The wrinkle added by Senate Republicans is that a six figure transfer from the PAC was orchestrated to an “Independent Political Committee”, to the tune of $140,000. This group, by Georgia law, must be independent if it is to receive unlimited contribution amounts and spend unlimited amounts on behalf of candidates. Independent is supposed to mean that the candidates and/or beneficiaries have no say in the group’s creation, management, and are not allowed to coordinate campaign activities.
Independent, to Senate leadership, means picking the consultant, giving that consultant the names of Senators who are to receive mail extolling the virtues of their service, and key accomplishments that should appear in the mail. Representatives of the Senators receiving such mail will insist with a straight face that this meets Georgia’s definition of “independent”.
At least one ethics complaint has been filed in the matter. As we’ve seen in Georgia as recently as Monday when the Governor’s reshuffled ethics commission dismissed the most serious charges against him from his 2010 campaign, bending the rules beyond the limits of law or physics usually results in a small and quiet slap on the wrist well after the offending party has been elected. We continue to be a state that refuses to police our leaders.
The unique nature of the Senate’s independent group is that it freed up incumbents to spend their sizable warchests on their own campaigns. Thus, Senator Chip Rogers, a new convert to being diametrically opposed to the T-SPLOST, is free to spend his $300,000 on hand broadcasting his opposition.
Donors to the Senate’s PAC such as Coca Cola and Georgia Power may be irritated that their money donated to help Senators is effectively becoming anti-TSPLOST money, given the sizable donations the companies have made to promote the T-SPLOST campaign. In reality, the companies are just participating in the time honored tradition of buying access to incumbents. After all, part of the price of admission is also ensuring that incumbents are protected, ensuring long lasting dividends for their investments.
Those inside the system routinely chide critics and tell them that they need to run for election if they want to change the system. Then they laugh heartily knowing that they have built a system where those who run the system will routinely have between a half million to a million dollars of their own and “independent” expenditures to defend themselves, plus the institutional support of Georgia’s government behind them.
Few challengers are willing to take on such a barrier to entry to win a $17,000 per year job. Even fewer will succeed. The deck is stacked against challengers, and in effect, everyday Georgians.
Most incumbents facing opposition will be re-elected in their primaries next week. Because State House and Senate districts are drawn to maximize partisan advantage, the elections this November will largely be a non-event for the State House and Senate. Expect the status quo to remain intact.
What will likely escalate is the difficulty of governing with this status quo. Trust in government, and specifically, Georgia’s state government is eroding. Denial of an ethics problem, legislation designed primarily to benefit a select few, and incumbents who cater to the whims of large donors at the expense of grass roots voters has begun to permeate the awareness of the electorate. Yet the awareness is not enough to overcome the sizable advantages incumbents enjoy in this state.
Georgians have elections next week, but they should prepare now for more of the same. Despite several close contests, most incumbents will be returning to the Gold Dome. The advantages they enjoy are just too large. And when they find themselves at a disadvantage, the rules are bent, broken, or ignored.