Interest money

Bookman: The floodgates open for special money during the session

Allow me to introduce Jeff Mullis, Chairman of the Georgia State Senate Rules Committee and one of the most powerful people in Georgian politics.

If you want a bill passed, you have to go through Mullis. As Rules Chairman, he pretty much decides if and when a bill gets a vote in the Senate. Conversely, if you oppose a certain bill and want to make sure it dies quietly, Mullis is the man who can arrange that outcome as well.

Think of him as the butler of the Senate, the man who stands at the door and decides who gets a place to dine and who doesn’t.

That’s a lot of power, and it helps explain why Mullis has raised more than $800,000 in PAC contributions from businesses since 2015, which is a pretty healthy sum for a state lawmaker in a safe neighborhood.

Mullis was also the sponsor of Senate Bill 221, which Governor Brian Kemp quietly signed into law recently. When introducing his bill to the Senate in February, Mullis described SB 221 as the “Political Expenditure Transparency Act,” calling it a non-partisan, “completely bipartisan” bill and promising it would help stop the flow of so-called “dark money” from covert sources that sometimes pours into political campaigns .

Let me assure you: SB 221 is none of that. Believing that Mullis wants to clean up campaign finance in Georgia is like believing that a butler wants to eliminate tipping.

So what does the SB 221 really do?

Under longstanding Georgian law, Mullis and other state officials were barred from accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session. They can take money before the session; they can take money after the session. But for those three or four months at the start of each year, when they actively debate and vote on legislation, the flow of campaign money has to stop.

You can understand why a rules committee chair might find that frustrating, right? With all those bills under his control, his ability to monetize that power is stunted to say the least.

Well, under SB 221, the majority and minority caucus in the House and the minority and majority caucus in the Senate can each create two “steering committees,” under the control of designated legislators, who can accept campaign donations even during the session. That makes eight such committees. Individual legislators are still prohibited from receiving donations, but committees are not.

And I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but a Standing Orders Chair who has control of such a committee would be perfectly placed to wring the arms of lobbyists and special interests for big bucks in such a system. And if that idea never occurred to Mullis personally, I bet someone points it out to him very soon.

And what do I mean by “lots of money?”

Well, let me quote SB 221, which states that campaign contribution limits are already provided for in Georgia law”does not apply to contributions to an executive committee.

It’s true: with Kemp’s signature on SB 221, there’s literally no limit on how much a person can donate to such a committee. Altria, the tobacco company formerly known as Phillip Morris, donated the legal maximum of $2,800 to Mullis last year, but can now donate an unlimited amount, during the legislative session, to a “committee leadership” headed by Mullis. The Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance PAC, which lobbies for the legalization of sports betting in Georgia, also gave Mullis $2,500 before the last legislative session, but now could give an unlimited amount to a “steering committee” that Mullis was directing, and doing so during the session itself.

(Under SB 221, the governor, lieutenant governor, and nominees for those positions may also establish “directing committees” to receive unlimited contributions during the session.)

And while Mullis might point out that all contributions should at least be reported to the public by the steering committee — “transparency,” remember? – it will not mention that there are obvious, simple and legal ways to circumvent this requirement. As State Senator Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta, pointed out during the floor debate, unlimited funds can be donated anonymously to a legal nonprofit entity known as a 501(c) (4), who then passes this money on to the “management committee” without anyone knowing where the money came from.

Well, the generous donor would know. And the grateful recipient “steering committee” would know that without a doubt. But Georgian voters wouldn’t know that.

The silent passage and enactment of SB 221 tells us several things beyond the sincerity of Mullis’ concern for ethical governance. This tells us that Republicans in Georgia are afraid of what the future holds. They are scared of the 2020 election, scared of the changing Georgian electorate, and scared of the ability of Stacey Abrams and the Georgia Democrats to raise big money from an army of small donors. So they turn on the taps so the big money special interests can get through.

It also reminds us of the wisdom to ignore what people say and instead watch what they do. Over the past few weeks, Republicans here in Georgia and nationally have made quite a show of declaring their independence from “woke corporations” and corporate PAC money, claiming that they are now the party of American workers and suggesting that the days of a “special relationship” between big special interests and the GOP are now over.

But while they ostensibly slam the front door on such deals, they quietly open an even bigger back door.