Originally created 02/29/04

Ethics-in-government reform sees little progress this year



ATLANTA - When the General Assembly session kicked off last month, the prospects for ethics-in-government reform looked good.

After three straight years without major progress, leaders of both parties were predicting that 2004 would see a breakthrough.

But now, the odds of significant change are dwindling along with the number of days remaining in the session.

This year's key ethics bill, a wide-ranging package of reforms, was scheduled to reach the Senate floor last week, only to be shuffled back to a committee at the last minute.

On the House side, Democratic leaders, distracted by more pressing issues, haven't even introduced their version of ethics reform promised weeks ago.

"I'm disappointed," said Bill Bozarth, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia. "But I'm still optimistic."

The omnibus Senate bill is part of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue's legislative agenda. It includes provisions that would:

* Increase the civil penalties the State Ethics Commission can mete out to violators and give the commission the power to investigate conflicts of interest

* Prohibit state elected officials and employees from lobbying for at least one year after they leave office

* Expand the information that must be included on candidates' personal finance-disclosure reports

* Require candidates to file personal finance-disclosure reports electronically, in addition to the electronic filing requirement for campaign-finance reports already in the law

* Require lobbyists to identify their clients and how much they are paid by each client.

Bill delayed

The bill cleared the Senate Ethics Committee and was scheduled to be taken up on the floor last week. But when a flurry of proposed amendments cropped up, Senate Republican leaders decided to send it back to the committee rather than hashing out the changes on the floor.

Meanwhile, leaders in the Democrat-controlled House have been working on a Democratic version of ethics reform similar to a House bill left over from last year. That measure - also a comprehensive set of reforms - went all the way through the House and Senate, but differences between the two versions weren't resolved before the clock ran out on the session.

This year's House bill was expected sooner, but Democratic leaders say they've been distracted by deliberations over the state budget and by redistricting, an issue suddenly thrust into the spotlight by a federal court decision that overturned the current legislative maps.

Public skeptical

Despite the progress the Legislature made last year, some voters are skeptical whether lawmakers' hearts are truly into overhauling the rules that govern their campaign activities and how they carry out their duties once elected.

"We send these guys to Atlanta. We expect them to ... provide some moral fabric," said Richard Isdell, of Augusta, who has been active in the push for ethics-in-government reforms in Richmond County. "(But) they're going to look out for themselves."

If both the House and Senate manage to get their omnibus bills passed, a legislative conference committee would be given the task of negotiating a compromise.

That wouldn't be an easy assignment. While last year's House bill and this year's Senate measure share many common provisions, Mr. Porter's legislation would decrease campaign-contribution limits.

Ironically, it was a major ethics bill pushed through the Legislature in 2000 by then-Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, that raised the limits to where they are now.

Bills in hopper

Even if neither of the major bills gets through this year, a couple of more narrowly drawn Senate bills are in the mix, both sponsored by Sen. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta.

One, which already has cleared the Senate, would clamp down on state agencies that spend tax dollars to lobby the General Assembly to pass bills on their legislative agendas.

The other measure, which hasn't reached the Senate floor, has good-government advocates concerned. It would do away with a provision in the 2000 reform law requiring candidates to file campaign reports electronically.



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