Good-government supporters pushing second round of ethics reforms

ATLANTA - With a major overhaul of Georgia's ethics in government laws set to take effect next month, Gov. Sonny Perdue isn't prone to rush into more reforms during the 2006 legislative session.

But good-government advocates argue that the new law falls short on a number of fronts, and they're lining up allies in the General Assembly to push for tougher ethical standards.

The ethics bill passed during this year's session was among the governor's top legislative priorities. Many of its provisions had been sought by supporters of ethics reform for years, including prohibiting state elected officials or agency heads from becoming lobbyists within one year of leaving office and a ban on nepotism in state government.

The legislation also toughened financial disclosure requirements for candidates for state office and created a legislative committee to investigate conflict of interest complaints against lawmakers.

"I didn't get everything I wanted,'' Perdue said during a recent interview. "(But) I kind of believe when you ... get 75 percent, let's make sure that 75 percent's working.''

Among the provisions Perdue got in the bill was a transfer of many of the clerical responsibilities associated with enforcing the ethics law from the secretary of state, who oversees elections in Georgia, to the State Ethics Commission.

When the new law takes effect Jan. 9, the first day of the legislative session, the commission will take over the processing and maintaining of records kept by the secretary of state's office.

Those documents include campaign finance and personal finance reports filed by statewide, legislative and judicial candidates, as well as financial disclosure reports submitted by appointees of state boards, authorities and commissions.

More funding sought

Last spring, commission Executive Secretary Teddy Lee asked for $1.1 million for staff and equipment to carry out those new duties. The commission is operating on a $718,000 budget for the current fiscal year.

Last week, Lee said the agency has been forced to begin its preparations for the law but is still without the additional money.

"We're having to pull resources out of our current budget,'' he said. "You can't really say, 'We're not going to do anything until we get the money.' ... (But) right now, that will only stretch so far.''

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson said Lee's plea didn't fall on deaf ears. Johnson, R-Savannah, said the commission's financial squeeze will be addressed, either by the governor's budget office administratively or when the legislature takes up the annual midyear budget adjustment this winter.

"We are aware that they need more money,'' he said. "(But) nobody was thinking about the run up.''

While the funding issue apparently is on its way to being addressed, some ethics reform supporters say the new law needs additional teeth to be truly effective.

Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause-Georgia, said his organization would like to see a limit on gifts to elected officials enacted into law.

Florida sets example

The original version of this year's ethics bill included a $50 gift limit, and lawmakers in Florida recently passed legislation banning gifts of any value.

"If Florida can do it, why are we laying back and saying we can't?'' Bozarth asked.

Bozarth said Common Cause also supports expanding the new law's conflict of interest provisions to local elected officials.

The Joint Legislative Ethics Committee created in the law will only have the authority to investigate cases involving lawmakers and members of their staffs.

But Johnson said bringing hundreds of local officials across the state under the new law was too complex an undertaking to accomplish in one legislative session.

"I think we've done a comprehensive ethics reform package that doesn't even go into effect until this January,'' he said. "We need to see if that's helping reduce conflicts of interest and the perception of corruption and favoritism.''

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, is gearing up for another effort to convince Perdue and the Republican majority in the House to support two bills that would prohibit political parties from contributing to non partisan judicial candidates and provide for public financing of state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals elections.

But Bozarth said the political climate for additional ethics bills this winter doesn't look promising.

He said there doesn't seem to be a sentiment among Georgia voters for further reforms, despite the recent conviction of former Senate Democratic leader Charles Walker on 127 federal charges, including pocketing money raised by a charity he founded and strong arming institutions dependent on state funds into doing business with his companies. Walker, of Augusta, began serving a 10-year prison sentence last week.

"This stuff needs to be scandal-driven,'' Bozarth said. "It's hard to do unless you've got public outcry about some bad behavior.''