Burkhalter won't run for House speaker

The saga surrounding the leadership of the Georgia House of Representatives took yet another turn late Monday, when Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter announced he will not be a candidate for the top job.

But Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek) will still be speaker for a few weeks after Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) resigns Jan. 1. Burkhalter said in a letter to his fellow Republicans that he will serve until an election can be held the first week lawmakers return for the 2010 legislative session on Jan. 11.

Richardson announced last week he will resign from the Legislature on Jan. 1. in the wake of a scandal that again raised allegations that he once had an affair with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist while pushing legislation that would have benefited the utility. After Democrats filed an ethics complaint in 2007 over the rumored affair and its conflict of interest ramifications, a joint House-Senate ethics committee took no action.

Meanwhile Monday, a bipartisan trio of 2010 statewide candidates called for an overhaul of the state's ethics laws in the wake of Richardson's announcement.

But that news was overwhelmed late Monday by Burkhalter's announcement. The state Constitution dictates that Burkhalter become speaker when Richardson officially steps down, and House rules require him to call an election for speaker within 120 days. Burkhalter, who challenged Richardson in 2005 when the GOP first took over the House, was expected to be a strong candidate for the permanent job, but he said "other career opportunities" make it unclear he would remain in the House.

While Burkhalter did not specify those opportunities in his letter, he is a finalist to be the next executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center. GWCC officials on Monday would not say who had made the final cut for the job that pays several hundred thousand dollars a year.

Burkhalter also announced that House Republicans will meet in Atlanta on Friday but that no elections will be held until the General Assembly reconvenes.

Burkhalter's exit from the race is sure to set up a scramble for the speakership. Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), who challenged Richardson for the job following the 2008 elections, said "it's too early" to make a decision.

"I think I want to see the rest of the story before I comment," he said.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Cassville) said he has been encouraged to run by several members, but he said he has not yet made a decision.

"Am I planning to run for speaker? No. But I'll leave the option open," Loudermilk said.

The name of Ways and Means chairman Larry O'Neal (R-Bonaire) was getting a lot of play Monday among Republicans as a potential candidate, and one that could have broad support. Efforts to reach O'Neal were unsuccessful, but other House members said they were getting calls from O'Neal allies gathering support.

Others were trying to keep the focus on what got the House to this point and said the laws governing behavior at the Capitol have to change. Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel, who is running for governor, Democratic attorney general hopeful Rep. Rob Teilhet and Democratic secretary of state candidate Gary Horlacher all said Richardson's coming resignation is not enough to clear the air under the Gold Dome.

All three say complaints against legislators should be investigated by the State Ethics Commission and not fellow lawmakers, as is currently the case.

"Allowing the Legislature to police itself on ethics is like letting a criminal preside over his own court hearing," Teilhet said. "We must address the underlying culture of corruption that has allowed self-dealing and conflicts of interest to run rampant at our Capitol."

Teilhet's bill would give the State Ethics Commission jurisdiction over complaints of conflict of interest against members of the General Assembly. The Ethics Commission deals with similar complaints against most all other elected officials in the state, but lawmakers are supposed to police themselves.

Teilhet said his proposed bill includes many of the same elements that Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican proposed in 2005, but that were removed from an ethics bill that passed in the last hours of the 2005 session.

“Governor Sonny Perdue was right in 2005. But the House leadership gutted his legislation, and the result was an ethics bill with no teeth on conflict of interest," Teilhet said.

Handel, too, wants to see legislators be subject to Georgia's Open Records laws, which mandate the release of many records and correspondence. Nearly every other elected and governmental official in the state is subject to those sunshine rules, but lawmakers specifically exempted themselves from disclosure.

"This is an opportunity for all of us to take significant measures to end the culture of insider dealings, conflicts of interest and behavior that no one should be proud of but has been with us for decades," Handel said Monday.

Horlacher said the state's ethics in government laws have been diluted over the past several years and the State Ethics Commission had much of its power, and budget, stripped away.

"This is about restoring the integrity of our government," Horlacher said in a posting on his Web site. "Ethics is one of the few issues where the polarizing rhetoric doesn't stick."