Did you know that there’s an election this year in Georgia? For Governor? The state Senate staged a piece of theater Friday that served as a reminder, lest you forget.
But first, a word about what’s on the roster for this week. A lot! Lawmakers will turn their attention this week to the 2015 budget. Passing a balanced budget is the only thing lawmakers are constitutionally obligated to do.
The House passed the 2014 amended budget – also known as the little budget – on Friday (more on that below). It now moves to the Senate.
Lawmakers will be looking at a number of bills this week, either in committee or on the floor of one of the chambers. Republicans will continue to debate a bill that would loosen restrictions on where Georgians can carry firearms, even though Gov. Nathan Deal has made it clear it’s not part of his agenda. Another bill that lawmakers are considering would change the rules for how law enforcement seizes property in connection with criminal investigations. They’ll also be discussing the Constitutional convention. What Constitutional convention, you ask? Oh, there isn’t one scheduled. Not yet. But some Georgia lawmakers want to change that.
Outside groups that monitor the Capitol are also keeping busy. Georgia Watch, a consumer watchdog group will be holding its first-ever legislative breakfast. It will feature Rep. Stacey Abrams, an Atlanta Democrat and the House Minority Leader, and Rep. Mike Dudgeon, a Johns Creek Republican, discussing how the state legislature intersects with the top issues facing Georgians this year.
Election Year Tussles
Now let’s get back to the political theater your GPB News Now correspondent wandered into.
The inspiration for the drama in the state Senate Friday was a bill that would have made changes to the organization of Georgia’s Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, also known as the ethics commission. The specific changes relate to moving the commission away from the oversight of the Secretary of State’s Office but the real meat was a tussle between Republicans and Democrats over what would constitute an independent ethics commission (the version of the bill that ultimately passed no longer included that provision).
Or perhaps it would be better to say the tussle was between Republicans and a specific Democrat. That’s Sen. Jason Carter, the Decatur Democrat who’s running for Governor against a man who’s had his own tussles with the ethics commission, Gov. Nathan Deal.
Not that Carter wanted to comment on that. He rebuffed comments from his colleague Sen. Steve Henson, a Tucker Democrat, who rose to point out the murky history between Deal and the ethics commission.
The specifics of those allegations are important. Two former ethics commission attorneys have filed lawsuits saying they were punished for pursuing an ethics case against Deal. He was cleared of the main violations by the commission in 2012, although some say that’s because he appointed the current executive director, Holly LaBerge.
An Independent Ethics Commission? Probably Not This Year
But let’s focus on the substance of an amendment that Carter proposed (and which failed to garner enough votes). He suggested removing politicians from the process of appointing members to the ethics commission. Instead, his amendment would have directed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to appoint three members of the commission, and the Chief of the Georgia Court of Appeals to appoint the remaining two. He argued that judges would be less politically-motivated because they run in nonpartisan elections.
Republicans, including Sen. David Shafer, a Duluth Republican and the chamber’s president Pro Tempore, took issue with this notion, and along with other members of the GOP, worked Carter over pretty good as if he had said, “Humans should stop living on earth.”
There are two reasons for this. One, he’s running for Governor against their man. As the AJC's Kyle Wingfield tweeted, "The Governor's race is taking place on the Senate floor right now. Nothing more, nothing less. Get used to it."
And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ethics commission has become the third rail of Georgia politics.
A very learned Capitol observer privately questioned whether the judiciary would be more independent; perhaps judges would become embroiled in politics once they had the power to appoint commission members or would become the subject of lobbying about who to appoint.
Can Politicians Police Themselves?
Fair enough. But it’s worth asking: can politicians police themselves? Lingering in the background of this debate was Sen. Don Balfour, a Snellville Republican, who just survived a trial over whether he falsified travel vouchers to say he was on state business when he wasn’t.
He was found not guilty on all counts, let it be clear, and has said the erroneous expense reports were innocent mistakes. That was after a Senate ethics panel meted out a token fine, which moved one Senator, Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican, to demand a more serious consideration of the offenses. That lead to the indictment and the trial.
One could argue the Senate ethics panel did its job because a jury found Balfour guilty of nothing. But a grand jury saw fit to file the charges, so it’s tough to say.
The rules politicians follow are important. And in the case of Balfour, it emerged during his trial that committee chairs at the state legislature can claim unlimited per diem each year. As long as they say, ‘Hey, I was on state business that day,’ they get paid.
So what’s my point? My point is lawmakers insist this will be an easy, breezy session where few laws of any substance will pass.
But it’s not always easy to close the door on important debates. Senate Republicans may have had concerns about Carter’s amendment if they thought he was grandstanding for a press release or campaign point he would later issue.
The independence of the ethics commission or the lack thereof, however, is one of those sticking points that so unnerves some Georgians that folks as disparate as Common Cause on the left and the Tea Party on the right have pushed for changes.
Here’s How We Spend Your Money
As we mentioned at the top, state lawmakers passed Georgia’s amended 2014 budget on Friday, agreeing to add about $300 million to the spending plan they passed last year. The $20.1 billion budget the House passed includes an additional $180 million for schools, and represents a 1 percent increase over the funds allotted last year.
Lawmakers typically don’t add money for new initiatives to the mid-year budget because it’s considered an adjustment to the budget passed the previous year.
Instead, it’s aimed mainly at adding money “or truing up” the budget, as the lawmakers like to say, to cover the cost of increased school enrollment and other items that cropped up since last session.
Terry England, an Auburn Republican who chairs the House appropriations committee laid out how taxpayer dollars were being allocated in this year’s budget to his colleagues Friday from the floor:
“House Bill 747 as it stands before this house for your approval today allocates 53.3 percent – again – 53.3 percent of all state revenues to education,” he said, using the bill number. “Twenty-three percent goes to Healthy Georgia. Eight point four percent goes to public safety needs and 5.8 percent goes to economic development.”
Third Week At The Gold Dome
Are you ready for week three of the state legislative session? Ready or not, here it comes.