Imagine heading down to the DMV and successfully renewing your driver's license even though you owe more than $47,000 in traffic fines. Wouldn't you be shocked you pulled it off?
As the head of a good government watchdog group who becomes more and more cynical every day with Georgia's legislative leadership, even I was shocked when we found a lobbyist essentially did just that.
At the beginning of this year, there were six Georgia lobbyists who renewed their lobbyist licenses for the 2012 legislative session even though they owed more than $11,000 each in fines for filing reports late, or not filing reports at all. One of them actually owed $47,650 in fines according to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission website (this state agency used to be known simply as the State Ethics Commission, but legislators changed the name so no one could file an "ethics" complaint against them — see what we're up against?).
Of the 1,153 lobbyists who registered this year to woo our Georgia lawmakers, 174 or 15 percent of them were able to renew their license even though the Commission had them listed on their outstanding-fines list. These lobbyists combined owed $278,025 in fines. Beyond that, a WSB-TV investigative report found almost $2 million in uncollected fines when including previous years.
So obviously, little is being done to reign in lobbyists who don't turn in reports, or do so on time. But what does that mean for you, concerned citizen, or a good government watchdog group? It means our state government isn't as transparent as our legislative leadership claims it to be. If you want to know in a timely fashion which lobbyist spent how much money in order to influence your legislator about an important decision, then a delayed or a never-filed disclosure report keeps you from gaining that knowledge. And we're talking about spending on fancy dinners, sports tickets, golf weekends, or even a $17,000 trip to Europe (yes, this and more has happened and, unfortunately, is legal under Georgia law).
Even though the laws on the books provide the appearance of great transparency and stiff fines for those who don't follow the rules, reality shows if the enforcement mechanism is not strong, the "tough" laws hardly matter. This is why Georgia was recently ranked as the worst state in the nation when it comes to corruption risk (and of course legislative leaders blamed the report author, not their law-making abilities).
There is a seemingly simple solution. The Commission has the authority to deny licenses for those deemed noncompliant, and we will call on it to do just that for next year's legislative session.
Lobbyists who don't pay their fines, don't get their badges. Simple, right?
Unfortunately, it's not so simply because the Commission lacks the resources to adequately carry out its mission as described by Georgia law. Its inability to do so falls squarely on the shoulders of legislative leaders. Until leaders like House Speaker David Ralston and Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson start taking ethics reform seriously, problems like these will continue.