Fine forgiveness bill gets boost in Senate Ethics

A plan a year in the making to relieve local politicians of millions in outstanding ethics fines is taking shape in the General Assembly.

The state ethics commission and the lobbyists for the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia have worked out a compromise to House Bill 370 to wipe the slate clean for thousands of county commissioners, mayors, school board members and other local officials who did not file campaign finance reports from 2010-2014. The catch: To get their fines forgiven, they would still have to file their missing reports.

“The folks who were in that period still had an obligation to file," said ethics commission executive director Stefan Ritter. "By and large, people did not do that.”

Credit: Chris Joyner

Credit: Chris Joyner

The problem stems from a period when local officials were required to electronically file their campaign reports directly with the state. Before 2010, city and county politicians could file paper reports with a local clerk -- or, commonly, just ask the clerk to do it for them. The change resulted in confusion and a tidal wave of complaints and non-compliance from local officials, many of whom said they were unable to access the state's often balky and confusing online filing system.

In 2014, lawmakers changed the law back, once again returning the filing of local campaign reports to local filing officers. But by then the ethics commission's late- and non-filer list had grown exponentially, filed with local politicians who were unable or unwilling to file with the state.

The commission's database of late filers currently has about 27,000 entries, most of which represent missing local reports.

Under the Senate committee substitute, local officials on the ethics commission's late list would have until Dec. 31 to get their old reports in. Once received, the ethics commission would remove their names from the delinquent list, but the commission would have a year to review the reports and could return names to the list if the reports were not adequate.

The committee did not vote on the substitute. That's likely to come when they meet again next week.

Lawmakers, who have heard the complaints from their local politicians for years, are eager to put this issue to bed. To grease the skids, the committee stripped from the bill a controversial plan to regulate political speech by requiring broad disclosure of spending for billboards, mailers, phone banking and other forms of electioneering not already captured by state ethics laws.

Prior to the committee meeting, political activists were preparing for a fight.

Credit: Chris Joyner

Credit: Chris Joyner

"Wake up people!" screamed one email notice sent Monday by conservative activist Jack Staver. "Don't let them kill free speech in Georgia tomorrow!"

Political activists from the tea party and other political subgroups line the halls of the Capitol during the legislative session bending lawmakers' ears about their concerns. It is disruptive and effective. After the session ends, some of them get involved in primary campaigns against those same lawmakers.

Legislative leaders like House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, have complained that these activists have the run of the Capitol but are not required to disclose how they fund their campaigns.

Ralston proposed the registration requirement in 2014 to howls of protest from activists. Although the Senate committee stripped the language from HB 370 Wednesday, the discussion may not be over.

"So dark money can remain hidden?" Ralson's spokesman Kaleb McMichen tweeted in response to news about the committee substitute. "Hmmm, appears openness and transparency should only apply to some."