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 session before failing in the House. It’s an example of how chaotic governing becomes as lawmakers scurry to pass legislation before the midnight deadline to adjourn for the year.
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.
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 bill.
The change came attached to
legislation to ban the state 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 the unexpected addition. The new bill would have given the ethics commission the discretion not to release complaints filed against public officials if they were judged to be unfounded or involve a “technical defect.” It would have also 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, the 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, such as missing a report deadline because the online filing system will not work.
He said the amendment, which was never debated in a committee, was his only realistic opportunity to make the change.
Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, was one of just four senators to oppose the amended legislation. He doubts many of his colleagues realized the major change in the bill. He called the rushed process a “black eye” for the General Assembly.
“The question isn’t whether the policy was a good policy. The question is the process,” he said.
Next came a vote in the House. 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 floor and refused to take questions from colleagues.
The bill failed on a lopsided 25-143 vote.