At first blush, the idea of Georgia lawmakers policing their own and their colleagues’ compliance with ethics rules has a distinct fox-guarding-the-henhouse, Dracula-policing-the-blood-bank feel about it.
In this case and under current circumstances, it actually makes sense.
With the General Assembly back in Atlanta for a special session on redistricting, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, revisited an issue that first arose back in the spring -- namely, the discomfiting revelation that about one-fifth of the honorables in the state Senate and House have outstanding ethics fines.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in May that 47 legislators owed money to the state for ethics violations. Most of the violations were minor and most of the sums relatively small, but some of them have been unpaid for years.
O’Neal, who called the reports “embarrassing,” offered a resolution Tuesday that would ban House members from serving on committees if they are delinquent in ethics fees or penalties. “This is about adherence to the rule of law,” he said. “We expect responsible behavior, ethical behavior, by our members.”
He’s right, of course. And punishing delinquent colleagues by keeping them off committees would be a powerful incentive for compliance. Voters back home probably wouldn’t respond favorably to the idea that somebody supposedly representing their interests is not allowed at the grownups’ table.
Of course, the problem with any question of government ethics in Georgia right now is that the state’s watchdog agency, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, is already overburdened with enforcing new ethics laws at the same time that its funding has been cut in half over the last couple of years. Some House Democrats raised a caveat that would seem to have more than just partisan motivation and legitimacy: How can the ethics panel possibly oversee enforcement of yet another new policy when it has more than it can handle already?
Minority Leader Stacy Abrams, D-Atlanta, proposed a change whereby the bipartisan House Ethics Committee, rather than the state commission, would make the decision on whether a member is in arrears; the House Ethics Committee is scheduled to vote on that measure today. It’s not a perfect solution, and its obvious shortcoming is that it lacks oversight beyond House members themselves.
But what O’Neal and Abrams are proposing is not a sweeping change in state ethics law; it is a change in House procedural rules. (The Senate, which would not be affected, might or might not consider the issue on its own.)
This proposal avoids the problem that disputes over fines could be stalled at the understaffed state ethics panel indefinitely. If the Ethics Committee approves the measure today and it goes to a full House vote, lawmakers will at least be on the record.