Ga. ethics panel struggles with budget cuts

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

The Associated Press

ATLANTA -- Georgia has slashed funding for its ethics commission which top officials say has left it unable to do the additional work lawmakers have handed it.

The agency -- recently renamed the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission -- has seen its budget shrink by 42 percent since 2008, when it peaked at $1.8 million. At the same time it's been charged with processing and auditing thousands more campaign finance forms from local officials and has seen the number of election-year ethics complaints climb steadily.

"We don't have the money to do everything we're being asked to do," commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps, a Camilla lawyer, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The five-member commission has called a meeting Tuesday to discuss the funding crunch.

The commission handles campaign finance reports and complaints as well as lobbyist registrations and fines.

The ethics panel is not unique in seeing its funding decline. Budget cuts have rippled across state government in recent years as Georgia has struggled with an economic downturn that has starved state coffers of tax revenues. But the hit has been steeper than most other state agencies and the drop has come as the state Legislature has worked to strengthen its ethics laws in the wake of the 2009 resignation of House Speaker Glenn Richardson following allegations of an affair with a lobbyist.

Georgia Republican leaders now routinely brag that they have some of the toughest ethics laws in the nation, citing a ranking from the Center from Public Integrity that largely grades government transparency.

But in Georgia, the money hasn't followed the mandates. And some say having strict laws is meaningless without the power to follow through and enforce them.

"It is true we are ranked 7th in the nation by the Center for Public Integrity, but that's for disclosure which is only one piece of the puzzle," said William Perry, head of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. "If you don't have enforcement to go along with disclosure then you don't have anything at all."

Republican lawmakers claim they provided the commission with enough money to perform their duties.

But commission Executive Secretary Stacey Kalberman said the lack of funding has resulted in a skeleton staff unable to audit the reports it receives or initiate investigations on its own. The commission once had three investigators and now it has none. The staff of three auditors has been reduced to one.

Kalberman said these days the commission has had to rely on citizens to root out allegations of impropriety and file complaints.

In 2008, there were 54 complaints filed with the commission. At the time the staff was conducting random audits and 20 of those complaints were filed by the commission staff. In 2010, there were 64 complaints filed. Only one of those complaints was filed by commission staff and it resulted from a news report.

"It's completely tied our hands in our ability to be pro-active," she said. "With the staff and the budget we have, that's impossible."

And the campaign finance complaints pending include a few related to Gov. Nathan Deal, stemming from his campaign last year. The Republican has denied any wrongdoing.

At the same time, the commission's responsibilities have grown thanks, in part, to new ethics laws adopted by lawmakers.

Under the law that passed in 2010, the commission must now accept campaign finance forms from all candidates for local elected office -- such as mayors and county commissioners -- in addition to state officials.

Kalberman said the commission processed 7,800 filings last year and anticipates processing some 68,000 filings this year.

Additionally, laws adopted this year to close some loopholes in the 2010 statute allows local officials to file their forms in paper form, rather than the previous requirement that they be filed online. Paper filings create more work for the ethics commission staff, Kalberman said. They must input the data manually so that it is searchable on the website. Some 400 paper forms have already flowed in, Kalberman said.

Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, said they pushed for the change after hearing from some local officials, especially in rural areas, that they didn't have computers or Internet access.

"They essentially made owning a computer a requirement to seek public office," Henderson said.

Additionally, the commission had been notifying candidates and officials by a secure online company if they failed to file their forms on time. The new law made clear that required notification, the precursor to a hefty fine being levied, must be done by certified mail. That raises the cost from 32 cents a notice to $5.52, incurring the commission with some $130,000 in mailing costs.

"It's made us a less effective and more expensive state agency," Kalberman said of the change in the law.

Kalberman asked for an additional $120,000 in funding to help cover the costs but was rebuffed by state lawmakers.

Joe Wilkinson, chairman of the House Ethics Commission, said he'd like to see the commission get more funding when the state's budget picture improves.

"But, yes, I do think they have adequate funding," the Republican from Sandy Springs said.

Marshall Guest a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, said that other states agencies have also shouldered deep cuts and have been able to fulfill their missions. And he said that lawmakers gave the commission the ability to keep some of the fees they collect.

"If they exercise that statutory ability to recover fees then they will have additional funds over and above what was appropriated," Guest said.

Kalberman said that while the commission may keep 25 dollars on every late fee they collect, more than half of delinquent filers haven't paid their fine. And she said the commission has neither the money nor authority to pursue them.

Rick Thompson, who led the commission in 2008 when funding reached its high point, said the ideal budget for the commission would be about $1.5 million. It now stands at about $1 million.

He said while the commission may be a bit too lean at the moment he expected they could make due.

"I've never heard a state agency come out and say 'stop, we have enough.'" Thompson said. "That's just not done.