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Funding should be restored for the ethics commission

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POSTED: September 26, 2012 8:00 p.m.

If you wonder why many people have little regard for government these days, look no further than the sorry way Georgia’s ethics commission has been treated.

The watchdog agency charged with making sure state and local lawmakers behave themselves has had its funding and staffing cut nearly in half over the past five years, according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution report.

Yes, some will note that the ethics commission budget is still 60 percent higher than it was in 2005 when Republicans earned a majority in both houses of the General Assembly, and the commission’s budget is $250,000 higher than it was last year. Most of that went to hire a new auditor, a data programmer and computer upgrades, according to the AJC.

But consider the following, uncovered by the Atlanta newspaper:

“In 2008, the commission closed 116 ethics cases, collecting $195,000 in civil penalties.

“That year, the commission had a budget of $1.9 million and 18 staffers, including several investigators, a certified fraud examiner, and multiple employees dedicated to keeping the agency’s farm of computer servers humming. Using the measures of resources and production, that year was a high-water mark for the ethics commission.

In 2011, the commission closed just 15 cases, according to a database of resolved cases on the ethics commission website. On May 22, 2008, the commission closed 16 cases in one day.”

Some thought 2008 was the beginning of a new era in open and honest government. Instead, the agency had its budget cut by 20 percent in 2009, according to the AJC.

It was cut by another 24 percent in 2010.

Granted, the reductions came at a time when most state agencies were finding their budgets cut. But, as the AJC notes, few agencies saw their funding slashed in the way the state ethics commission has. What’s more, lawmakers also took away the commission’s rule-making authority, leaving it unable to write new regulations.

At the same time, the agency underwent turnover in key positions, which may or may not have been related to an investigation into Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign finances. The ethics commission later cleared him of major violations.

Not surprisingly, the commission’s decreased staffing and funding has come at a time when it is facing more work. As the AJC reports:

“(The) General Assembly dramatically increased the agency’s paperwork duties. Ethics law changes passed in 2010 made the commission the repository for campaign finance filings for local officials as well as candidates for the Legislature and statewide office, exponentially increasing the number of officials filing directly with the office.

“Budget cuts have infringed on some of the commission’s basic functions, like putting campaign finance data online.

“Currently, reports mailed in by candidates are not being scanned into the online system. Anyone who wants to see them must come to the commission’s downtown office and pay search and retrieval fees, according to a message on the commission’s website.

“State law requires that the commission review every report filed with it. That’s never been done, mostly because the Legislature keeps increasing the number of reports the commission is responsible for while decreasing its budget.

“Holly LaBerge, the commission’s current executive secretary, said the commission set a goal of randomly auditing 10 percent of reports filed, but due to limited staff that project has been set aside in favor of reviewing complaints filed with the office.”

Lack of funding and manpower isn’t the only issue the ethics commission if facing. It’s also at the mercy of the same state lawmakers the commission is supposed to be regulating. That’s why it is time for Georgia to consider the lead of Alabama, which funds its ethics commission independently of its Legislature.

In the meantime, state legislators, listen up. It’s time to restore funding to the state ethics commission.

 

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