In the last two hours of the very last day of the 2012 Georgia General Assembly, with scores of proposed bills flying back and forth between the House and Senate, a handful of powerful state legislators tried to take advantage of the confusion. The conspiracy they launched demonstrates just how contemptuous they have become of the people whom they were elected to serve.
The goal of their little plot was to further weaken Georgia’s already lax ethics laws. Had it succeeded, it would have prevented voters from learning the identities of elected officials who had failed to meet deadlines established in state law for filing ethics disclosure and campaign finance statements. It also would have allowed fines levied against legislators for violating those laws to simply disappear, without payment and without anyone even learning they had existed.
And believe or not, the means by which legislative leaders attempted to accomplish that deed was more sordid than the deed itself.
We begin with House Bill 875, a harmless little piece of legislation meant to ensure that the Department of Natural Resources did not have to release personal data of applicants for hunting and fishing licenses, such as Social Security numbers and drivers’ license photos.
However, in what now looks to have been a well-orchestrated scheme, this innocuous little bill was passed in slightly different versions in the House and Senate. That forced the appointment of a six-member conference committee — three from each chamber — to work out the differences.
In hindsight, the membership of that conference committee should have signaled trouble, because it was oddly high-powered for such a little bill.
In the Senate, it comprised Don Balfour of Snellville, the powerful chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a prominent foe of ethics reform. John Bulloch of Ochlocknee and Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, also members of the Rules Committee and influential legislators in their own right, were also appointed.
In the House, Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson of Sandy Springs was named to the conference committee on HB 875, along with David Knight of Griffin and Tom McCall of Elberton.
Meeting in private in the last hours of the session, those six legislators agreed to dramatically revise HB 875 by adding the ethics-related language outlined above. They knew that such provisions would be highly controversial, but they were counting on the fact that in the last hectic hours of a session, members were much too busy to read the piles of legislation flying across their desks.
Under such circumstances, legislators casting votes are forced to rely on assurances from their colleagues that the bills coming before them are worthy of support. It is an act of faith and trust, and in this case, that faith and trust was betrayed.
After the conference committee concluded its work, Bulloch went to the Senate chamber, told his fellow senators that a deal had been worked out on little ol’ HB 875 and urged their support. It passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 46-4, but a look at the four “no” votes suggest that word of the bill’s true intent had already begun to leak out.
One of the four “no” votes was Josh McKoon, a freshman Republican from Columbus who had angered his party leadership by daring to sponsor ethics-reform legislation. Another was Democrat Jason Carter of Decatur, who earlier in the evening had tried and failed to force a floor vote on legislation imposing a $100 limit on gifts from lobbyists. The third was Democrat Gloria Butler, secretary of the Senate Ethics Committee; the fourth was Mike Crane, a freshman Republican from Newnan.
With time ticking down in the session, the bill now moved to the House, where it was introduced to legislators with no mention of its revised content. By then, however, AJC reporters and others had caught wind of the changes made to the bill. As House members began to vote, word was spreading. Alarmed legislators who had initially voted “yes” on the bill quickly began changing those votes to “no”, and in the end the bill was defeated by a vote of 25 to 143.
Wilkinson, the House Ethics Committee chairman, later tried to defend the rejected language, calling opposition to it “disgraceful.” As he saw it, the public has no right to know when legislators miss legal deadlines for filing ethics forms.
“Why should [a politician’s] name be up there if he didn’t do anything wrong?” he said.
That is wrong on so many levels. First, it is wrong as a matter of process. If the only way to enact your “good idea” is by smuggling it into unrelated legislation at the last minute, then maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t really such a good idea.
Second, let’s think about what really happened here. In the past, Wilkinson has defended Georgia’s ethics laws by stressing the importance of disclosure. If legislators and lobbyists disclose everything as required by law, he has argued, we don’t really need laws against gifts and conflicts of interest, etc. The voters will have all the information they need to discipline their elected officials.
In reality, however, some legislators are going years without filing required disclosure forms; they also aren’t paying the required fines, because the state ethics commission lacks the resources and gumption to take action. As a result, the only remaining incentive to encourage legislators to file disclosure by the legal deadline is public exposure if they do not.
Last week, Wilkinson and other tried to reduce public disclosure about legislators’ failure to publicly disclose, and they tried to do it without full disclosure. That is not open government.
That is, to borrow Wilkinson’s word, “disgraceful.”
– Jay Bookman