published Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Last-minute shift almost alters ethics law

  • photo
    The Georgia State Capitol building located in Atlanta, Ga
    Staff File Photo

ATLANTA — In a swirl of late-night lawmaking, a stealth amendment tucked into a hunting and fishing bill nearly allowed Georgia’s ethics commission to keep private some investigation records on public officials and loosen the penalties for breaking disclosure rules.

The bill breezed through the Senate late Thursday in the chaotic final hours of the General Assembly’s legislative session before failing in the House. It’s an example of how chaotic governing becomes as lawmakers scurry to pass their legislation ahead of the midnight deadline to adjourn for the year.

Problems are rife when lawmakers meet on their final day, especially as the clock edges closer to midnight. Exhausted politicians cast votes Thursday over a 14-hour working day and struggled to keep pace with the avalanche of legislation. A handful of their colleagues can make sweeping changes to bills in the final hours, then send that legislation along for rapid votes. There’s little time for questions and debate.

Government watchdog groups say the timing of the surprise ethics legislation was no coincidence.

“It was a sneak attempt and just proves the case that especially on the last day, you have to look at everything with a fine-tooth comb,” said Debbie Dooley, a coordinator for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, who frantically lobbied against the ethics bill. “If they can sneak something by, they’ll do it.”

Unexpected developments were common throughout the night for all sorts of reasons. Lawmakers broke an impasse over a bill restricting abortion five months after women conceive, which allowed the bill to pass. While amending a bill targeting unions, lawmakers ditched a ban on picketing outside private homes but forgot to remove a provision stepping up penalties for trespassers. The entire bill never got a vote.

Yet the biggest surprise of the evening came attached to legislation that originally banned the state government from releasing personal information collected from people applying for permits to hunt, trap, fish or boat. Late Thursday, a conference committee of six lawmakers made an unexpected addition.

The new version would have given the state’s ethics commission the discretion not to release complaints filed against public officials if those complaints were judged to be unfounded or involve a “technical defect.” It also would have allowed the commission case-by-case discretion to waive late fees for politicians and lobbyists who miss deadlines to file required financial disclosure reports.

Rep. Joe Wilkinson, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, sat on the panel that changed the bill. He said the proposal was reasonable because it protects politicians from being disparaged by unfounded or politically motivated complaints. He said public officials should not necessarily be fined for innocent mistakes, like missing a report deadline because of the commission’s online filing system will not work.

Wilkinson also said other state agencies are empowered to make similar case-by-case decisions and that the amendment, which was never debated in a committee, was his only realistic opportunity to make the change.

“I was besieged by local elected officials who had been fined, who felt they had been unjustly fined — and not for ethics violations — but for technical violations,” Wilkinson said in an interview.

Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, said he was surprised to see the new proposal in what had been a hunting and fishing bill. He was one of just four senators to oppose it. He doubts many of his colleagues realized the major change in the bill.

The rushed process is a “black eye” for the public’s image of the General Assembly, he said.

“The question isn’t whether the policy was a good policy. The question is the process,” he said. “We didn’t have a discussion. We didn’t have a debate. We didn’t have a committee hearing.”

Next came a vote in the House of Representatives. Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, who sat on the committee that made the change, spent less than a minute explaining the new version on the House floor. He refused to take questions from his colleagues.

The bill failed on a lopsided 143-25 vote.

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