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Political observers were transfixed this summer by the soap opera playing in the offices of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.
The body also known as the state ethics commission was rocked when commission executive secretary Stacey Kalberman, and her deputy, Sherilyn Streicker, announced in June their departures from the agency.
The reasons behind their exits were tied up with the drama over a politically charged investigation into the election campaign of Gov. Nathan Deal. Kalberman claimed orders to eliminate Streicker’s position and cut her own $125,000 salary by a third were politically motivated, while commission Chairman Patrick Millsaps and other commission members said cuts to the commission’s budget meant it could no longer afford the executives’ salaries.
The salary talks came as Kalberman was preparing to serve subpoenas on the governor, his chief of staff and associates for campaign spending documents as part of an ethics investigation. The subpoenas never were served, and the commission has asked Deal’s lawyer to voluntarily turn the papers over.
Some have said the General Assembly’s slashing of the commission budget has weakened its ability to investigate irregularities. But when Deal was asked about it in a Q&A in the current edition of Georgia Trend magazine, he said the commission was not cut more than any other part of state government, including his own office.
"They took absolutely the same percent of cuts as most other state agencies," he said. "When you’re making up a $1.4 billion [deficit], we had to continue to cut. They were somewhere in the 7 percent range – same as the governor’s office."
Deal is the right man to talk to about the state budget since the General Assembly largely followed his blueprint to craft the $18.3 billion spending plan for the new state fiscal year, which began July 1.
Did he get it right?
Long story short, the answer is yes. But it turns out that when dealing with the state budget, getting there isn’t half the fun.
From the start, Brian Robinson laid the groundwork by saying his boss was speaking off the cuff.
"What the governor knew was that he ordered the governor’s office to have as big a cut as any agency," he said. "Obviously, not all agencies or departments got cuts. Education, for example, got more money than before."
With help from the state Office of Planning and Budget, we find there is some math to wade through before we get our answer.
On July 1, the ethics commission started out with a budget of $1,084,145, compared with last year’s original allocation of $1,131,121. That’s actually a 4.2 percent cut.
By comparison, the governor’s office began fiscal 2011 with $6,276,732 and started this year with $5,914,065. That’s a 5.8 percent cut, which would indicate the governor was more than right in that the governor’s office took an even larger percentage cut to its budget than the ethics commission.
But inside every agency’s budget is what the budget office refers to as "adjustments." Adjustments are essentially pass-through funds given to pay for things such as health insurance and workers’ compensation and are not considered part of the agency’s operating budget.
Take those adjustments out, and using the baseline of the original fiscal 2011 appropriation, the cut to the ethics commission’s new budget is 7.6 percent. And, using the same calculation, the cut to the governor’s office is 7.2 percent.
Robinson said the budget numbers reflect a promise kept.
"Facing a budget deficit, Gov. Deal led the way he promised Georgians he would. He cut spending," Robinson said. "He set the example by cutting the governor's office budget by 7 percent, as much as any state agency or department."
The governor appoints three of the five board members to the ethics commission; the General Assembly appoints the other two.
It was up to the commissioners to figure out how to spend their smaller budget. The contemplated cut to Kalberman’s salary and the elimination of Streicker’s position accomplished that.
For sake of context, the ethics commission’s budget has been slashed 42 percent since fiscal 2008, but the new governor had no say in it until this year.
While this likely does little to settle questions over the staffing changes at the ethics commission, it does verify Deal’s statement to Georgia Trend, which we rate True.
Neely Young and Susan Percy, "New Leadership, New Energy." Georgia Trend, September 2011
Email and telephone interviews with officials in the Georgia Office of Planning and Budget, Sept. 14, 2011
Email exchange with Brian Robinson, deputy chief of staff for communications for Gov. Nathan Deal, Sept. 13-16, 2011
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