AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Watchdog group wades back into ethics reform

For the last several years, Common Cause Georgia has been a major player in a bipartisan push for tougher state ethics laws and enforcement.

As part of the (defunct?) Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, Common Cause joined with conservative groups, like the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, and more unaligned organizations, like The League of Women Voters, to pressure the General Assembly to pass a series of enhancements to the state's political ethics laws. The crosscut saw action of disparate pressure groups seemed to work.

In 2013, lawmakers passed House Bill 142, putting the first-ever limits (modest though they are) on lobbying gifts, which the alliance (and formerly reluctant lawmakers) hailed as a success. It's the second bill -- House Bill 143 -- that Common Cause now says has produced "unintentional consequences."

HB 143 answered a common complaint from local officials from Blue Ridge to Brunswick who resented having to file their campaign contribution paperwork with the state's terribly troubled and inefficient Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Local pols raised very little -- if any -- money, but were fined hundreds or thousands of dollars if they missed filing deadlines with the state agency. Many complained a confusing and bug-ridden computer system at the commission made timely filing difficult if not impossible.

As a result, HB 143 moved filing back down to local clerks or election superintendents. Those officials were then tasked with getting that information back up to the state level. Candidates who didn't raise more than $2,500 a year, and filed notice they didn't plan to raise any more, can skip filing.

Local politicians are a powerful lobbying force at the Capitol and they treated HB 143 as a common-sense solution, but Common Cause said the bill has created "a mess" out of local filings and made it difficult to track campaign money at the local level.

"Every Georgian has a right to know who is contributing and how political dollars are being spent at all levels of government,"Common Cause Georgia Chairman Clint Murphy said in a news release posted Tuesday. HB 143 has been "a step backwards" in open government, Murphy said, making it harder for Georgians to access these records in the name of convenience for local politicians.

Common Cause will hold a press conference Wednesday morning at the Capitol to outline the problems and push state leaders to acknowledge the problems and presumably fix them.

It is worth noting the watchdog group has undergone a political realignment in recent months that may make it more difficult to push for reforms in a Republican-dominated legislature. In addition, the ethics commission, now under new leadership, is no longer the punching bag it once was a year or so ago.

As a result, Common Cause may have even more of an uphill fight that normal.


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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.