State Integrity Investigation

Keeping Government Honest

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Paying for accountability: Founding and funding a new ethics commission in Georgia

In 2011, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission assessed $7 million worth of fines for campaign finance violations. But because the commission, formerly known as the Georgia State Ethics Commission, couldn’t afford to send out notices by certified mail, fines against politicians, officials, and parties were cut to a total of around $1 million.

The inability of the commission to pay for a service essential to its duties is, to Georgia Senator Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna), indicative of a larger issue. The disgust was obvious in Stoner’s voice as he explained how the state of Georgia gave up $6 million in revenue. “The fact that the ethics commission could not send out certified mail should tell you that we have a problem,” Stoner said.

In response, Stoner is proposing an overhaul package that would mean a dramatic upgrade in how the state polices its political spending.

Under Stoner’s plan a new ethics commission would be created, one that operates independent of the executive branch – which currently arranges the commission’s makeup through the governor’s appointments – and the legislature, which sets its budget. One bill would give the state’s supreme and appellate courts the power to select commissioners; a companion bill would guarantee steady funding for the commission.

The commission’s budget, like those of other state agencies, has faced dramatic cuts in recent years. But Stoner says the cuts have been too deep, and can create the appearance of impropriety, pointing out the recent coincidence of a large cut levied at the same time the commission investigated a past speaker of the house.

Stoner (pictured, right) says there’s no proof that budget cuts have been targeted to protect individual lawmakers. “But it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “The public perception is that that’s what happened.”

The commission currently operates on an annual budget of about $1 million, a nearly 50 percent decrease from its highest level. Stoner’s bill would guarantee the commission a funding level of 0.01 percent of the state’s total expenditure — which would grant the ethics board $1.4 million a under the current budget — and make its funding invulnerable to the legislature’s impulses.

“Does it make sense for us to be overseeing this — our own ethics?” Stoner asked rhetorically. “In that sense, it’s vulnerable to us cutting the budget at whim.”

Stoner’s bill will first need to make it through the Senate committee process, at which point it will move on to the House of Representatives. Stoner thinks it’s obvious that Georgia needs an independent, fully funded ethics commission, and issued a preemptive challenge to the bills’ opponents.  

“Anyone that’s saying we shouldn’t do it,” Stoner said, “to me, they’re going to have a hard time explaining to the public why we’re not.”

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