Originally created 02/20/00

Limits likely to hold finance package back



ATLANTA -- In a state where special interests already exercise a disproportionate influence over campaign financing, public interest groups are worried that the General Assembly may be about to increase contribution limits.

Gov. Roy Barnes is expected to introduce a campaign-finance-reform package within the next week or two that would include, among other things, stricter disclosure requirements.

In keeping with the federal system, the legislation also would switch Georgia from annual contribution caps to limits that would apply to the full two- or four-year election cycle.

"There's a relatively small number of people who can hit the current limit," said Steve Alfred, executive director of the Georgia chapter of Common Cause. "Increase the limit and that same small group is going to have more influence."

Statistics show that Georgia politicians already rely heavily on the largesse of corporations, political action committees and wealthy individuals.

An analysis by Morris News Service of campaign-finance reports submitted by 11 of the 55 state senators and 22 of the 180 House members revealed that a vast majority got much more than half of their campaign contributions last year from businesses and PACs. Eight of the lawmakers who took in little money in 1999 received 100 percent of their donations from corporate and/or PAC contributors.

From a statewide perspective, only 0.6 percent of Georgia's voting-age population contributed to legislative candidates during the 1996 election cycle, the lowest participation among 12 states in a study conducted by The National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The same study ranked Georgia ninth in the percentage of contributions of $100 or less, while the 977 contributions of $1,000 or more was the most among the 12 states by far.

With that history as a backdrop, any proposal to increase contribution limits likely would become the most controversial element in the legislation and the biggest potential obstacle to its passage.

Majority Leader Charles Walker received $269,600 last year from campaign donors, according to his report.

Mr. Walker, D-Augusta, said he supports changing to a system basing contribution limits on the election cycle.

"I think allowing people to do it in one cycle will save time and energy if you are an incumbent," he said. "It would allow people to have one fund-raiser rather than trying to have two, one every year."

Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta, who received about $74,005 in campaign contributions last year, said any advantage the election-cycle system might give incumbents would be offset by the ability of challengers to raise money during the legislative session, when lawmakers are prohibited from accepting donations.

"The time to announce for a challenger is when we're up here," he said. "For three months every year, a challenger has the advantage because they can raise money when we can't."

Georgia Democratic Chairman David Worley said basing limitations on an entire election cycle actually could help challengers because they could raise up to the full limit during an election year. Most challengers don't commit to a race before then, he said.

"They'd be able to wait until the last minute to run without being at a disadvantage," he said.

While the dispute over campaign-finance reform centers around contribution limits and whether to switch to a system based on election cycles, there appears to be little disagreement over stricter disclosure requirements, including an electronic filing provision expected to be part of the legislation.

 Most members of the local delegation of the General Assembly 
received far more in campaign contributions from businesses and
political-action committees during 1999, a non-election year, than
from individual donors. Here is a breakdown of individual
lawmakers:

Legislator.....Total contributions....Contributions from......%

Sen. Joey Brush..............$31,289..................$24,675..............79

Sen. Don Cheeks..............$10,800...................$9,550..............89

Sen. Charles Walker.........$259,150.................$127,200..............49

Rep. Ben Allen................$4,500...................$3,300..............73

Rep. Alberta Anderson.........$2,500...................$1,500..............60

Rep. Jack Connell.............$5,300...................$4,200..............79

Rep. George DeLoach...........$1,500...................$1,500..............100

Rep. Ben Harbin..............$25,942..................$20,042..............77

Rep. Henry Howard.............$3,050...................$3,050..............100

Rep. Bill Jackson...............$901.....................$801..............89

Rep. Robin Williams..........$69,000..................$31,950..............46

Source: Georgia Secretary of State's office