After Nathan Deal was elected governor last year, his team was understandably eager to change the conversation from the ethics allegations that dogged his campaign to how he would govern.
Months later, the talk surrounding Deal has come full circle. The state ethics agency’s director, Stacey Kalberman, claims her salary was slashed and her deputy’s job eliminated not because of budget constraints, but because they had just prepared subpoenas for their inquiry into Deal’s campaign spending.
Absent any new revelations, the story is a matter of he said, she said, with obvious motivations for each side. The benefit of the doubt for many Georgians will lie with Kalberman, given the curious timing of the budget concerns and the sheer number of complaints against Deal dating back to his tenure in Congress.
The best argument in Deal’s favor may be that going after Kalberman — and turning an under-the-radar investigation into a full-blown media frenzy — would be an awfully dumb way for the agency’s board to try to protect the governor.
But whatever this episode says about Deal, it says far more about how this state is governed. Or, perhaps more precisely, how this state’s government governs itself.
Forget Deal for a moment. A proximate cause of the ethics agency’s budget problems was a new law requiring it to send notices by certified mail to candidates and office holders delinquent in their campaign filings. The notices are now 17 times as expensive to send as before, an increased cost of thousands of dollars for which the Legislature did not fully account when setting the ethics agency’s budget.
Not only did legislators fail to account fully for the cost of the new law, but they cut the ethics agency’s budget.
The fact that many state agencies faced budget cuts might be some solace, had legislators not voted to increase their own budgets by a cumulative $3.2 million over fiscal 2011 — a 9 percent increase that’s triple the entire budget for the ethics agency.
As with the flap over Kalberman’s salary cut-turned-resignation, one need not look too far for motivation. Forty-seven legislators — more than one in five members of the General Assembly — are among the thousands of delinquent filers across Georgia whom the agency tries to track. Those 47 owed a collective $11,000 in fines as recently as early May, just weeks after they finalized the budget.
Our legislators have staked their ethics reputations on a system that relies more heavily on transparency than on limitations (on, for example, gifts from lobbyists). There’s a good argument to be made for that tack: Better to disclose everything and let the voters decide what’s important.
The problem is that those charged with enforcing the transparency are quite transparently being undermined — by the very people they’re supposed to monitor.
When the ethics agency’s board decides to fire its No. 2 staffer and slash its No. 1’s salary because the agency’s budget for mailings was too small, there’s a problem — regardless of whom those staffers were investigating.
I’ll put my desire to cut public spending up against anyone’s, but governing those who govern us is an essential part of our representative system.
I’ve often wondered how our government, both federal and state, might operate if legislators and regulators scrutinized their colleagues’ dealings the way they do the rest of ours. My hunch is we’d finally end up with the smaller government many of those same legislators have been promising us for so long.
In the meantime, I’d settle for simply ensuring they’re subjected to what scrutiny they are supposed to face.
– By Kyle Wingfield