Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a huge bolstering of the state ethics commission, but House leaders have cut back his ambitious plans and government watchdogs aren’t happy about it.
Under Deal’s budget proposal, the long dysfunctional agency, which enforces the state’s campaign finance and lobbying laws, would get four new attorneys and four investigators to resolve complaints more quickly and eliminate backlogs. Most of the complaints are filed against state and local politicians and lobbyists.
The House didn’t go along with the governor’s proposal, cutting the expansion in half. The chamber backed giving the agency two more lawyers and two auditors, cutting Deal’s proposal by $400,000. Still, it is more than the commission has now.
William Perry of Georgia Common Cause criticized the cuts, noting that House Speaker David Ralston had agreed with Deal that a funding increase was needed. He called the House’s move “a signal that the leadership in our state has no real interest in fixing a problem that has cost taxpayers more than $8 million and counting. Repeated underfunding of the agency has left it a mess and, without the proper resources, it can’t be fully cleaned up.”
Perry said a performance audit of the agency last fall concluded that a lack of independent funding was among the commission’s biggest problems.
“Trust in government is the top concern for citizens across the entire country,” he said. “Governor Deal owed it to the people of Georgia to follow through with his promise to create independence at the agency. Short of that, the funding increase was a step in the right direction. Now that it’s been slashed by the House, what do we have left?”
House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the cut had nothing to do with the chamber not supporting the agency.
He said budget-writers looked at how much progress the commission has made in recent months slashing the backlog of ethics complaints and decided that four extra staffers were enough to get the job done.
“We don’t disagree they need help,” England said. “We realize this is a sensitive area, but we have to treat it like any other agency.”
If the agency needs more help in the future, England said, the House can take a look at adding more money. “But you don’t want to pay people to just sit there on their hands,” he said.
When agency officials made their budget request last year, they only requested lawmakers give them one more attorney and an auditor. However, that request was submitted by an executive director shortly before she was fired.
The House didn’t cut Deal’s entire proposal for the commission. It supported Deal’s decision to recommend an extra $458,000 to reflect a rather substantial increase in the agency’s insurance premiums.
Until about the past four or five months, the commission had been plagued for more than three years by litigation, accusations of dirty dealing and back-stabbing among staff. Three lawsuits and a threatened fourth resulted in nearly $3 million in taxpayer dollars going to former employees in whistleblower cases.
Combined, the whistleblower payments, the increased insurance expenses and the backlog of unpaid fees owed by politicians and lobbyists late in filing reports has cost the commission more than $8 million, Perry said.