ATLANTA --- Exposing and punishing elected officials who do not pay their state income taxes isn't as simple as it might seem.
Just ask Eric Johnson and Joe Wilkinson. They're the two legislators charged with rooting out tax scofflaws among their colleagues. Mr. Johnson, a Savannah Republican, is chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and authored the original proposal to uncover the bums. Mr. Wilkinson, a Republican from Sandy Springs, is chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
Just passing the law to begin with wasn't easy.
"It was not a pretty fight in the Legislature. ... We barely got this bill passed," Mr. Johnson said.
Each has struggled to enforce the law enacted this year at Mr. Johnson's insistence. It requires the Department of Revenue to release to the two committees the names of members in each chamber who are delinquent or who haven't filed tax returns.
Normally, tax details are confidential. When the General Assembly rushed through the notification exception, it didn't specify whether the department could release other details -- such as whether there was a tax dispute, innocent error or other mitigating circumstances that might explain nonpayment.
When the committees began looking into legislators' taxes this summer, each found that the agency couldn't release information that might defend the accused lawmakers. Nor could it release information to verify or contradict claims the accused made in defending themselves.
Another little wrinkle in the law was how to treat lawmakers with huge back-tax debts who were paying them down. Mr. Wilkinson said his committee accepted advice from the office of Legislative Counsel to consider a lawmaker in compliance if he or she had negotiated a repayment plan with the Revenue Department.
Ironically, if a legislator refuses to pay and the department goes to court to get the right to garnish his or her legislative salary, then the politician is considered to be in compliance under the new law.
"A garnishment is viewed as a payment plan, and if a member is on a payment plan we have no grounds to expel them," Mr. Wilkinson said.
Expulsion is just one of the options the committees can recommend, but not considered the most likely. Other sanctions could include censure or a reprimand. Since the committees dole out sanctions for other transgressions they were given jurisdiction over tax cheats. They would make recommendations to the full House and Senate after a public hearing, which would be the first time the names would be released.
Another wrinkle is dealing with alleged violators in January 2011. That's because there will be an election, and the question is whether to swear in deadbeats when the new two-year session starts.
As Mr. Wilkinson notes, the new law applies to legislators, and someone doesn't become a legislator until sworn in. The law also gives the revenue commissioner authority only to disclose the names to the legislator's colleagues on the ethics committee, but the committees aren't officially formed until after everyone is sworn in. Making disclosure to the members of the previous ethics committee could be against the law because some of those members could be defeated, retire or ultimately be assigned to other committees.
The way the new law reads could make it difficult to expand the exposure process to other elected officials, as Mr. Johnson said he would prefer.
"I think taxpayers ought to know whether the elected officials that tax them are paying their taxes," he said.
For example, the State Ethics Commission now deals just with campaign contributions, which could be the forum for other statewide officials, including the governor, school superintendent and commissioners of labor, agriculture, insurance and so on.
But what about local government officials?
Few cities or counties have ethics committees or commissions. School boards and city councils could be required to create ethics committees to judge their colleagues. But who would judge accusations against a sheriff, a coroner or clerk of court?
Besides, the Revenue Department might need more manpower. If it shifts from random audits to specifically checking the status of thousands of public officials yearly, that could add costs, Mr. Johnson admits.
Perhaps the legal details will never need to be solved. After all, 19 legislators hadn't filed current tax returns during the legislative session when Mr. Johnson decided to expose them. By the time the law went into effect, all of the senators were in compliance and only two or three members of the House were thought to be in violation. When the House Ethics Committee gets around to actually taking action, they may all be in compliance, too.
Mr. Johnson said just having the law may have served the purpose and ensure it's never used.
Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.