Ethics Commission facing cuts

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 3, 2003

In response to the General Fund Budget cuts which took effect Wednesday, The State Ethics Commission announced lay-offs for five employees and a 50 percent cut of regularly scheduled meetings in Montgomery.

The changes, which will be applied in December, include an agenda of bimonthly as opposed to the current monthly meetings.

The commission reviews cases involving application of the Alabama Laws of Ethics. Fewer numbers of staff and less frequent meetings will result in problems with the cases, according to Commission Director Jim Sumner.

"We've worked hard over the past years to get our backlogged cases down from 50," Sumner said. "And we've worked hard to get the number down to 15 cases per investigator."

The number of investigators will decrease, too. Two of the five employees losing their jobs are investigators, and there will be a total of two investigators instead of the current four.

The change will mean a longer time to have the cases resolved, added Sumner.

"This ultimately means an immediate change of double the case load, which will double the time frame in which to work the cases," he said. "First, we work in order of investigating, which includes interviews and many appointments with individuals. The process simply takes time."

Sumner said the decision to issue the lay-offs wasn't easy, but had to be done.

"Eighty-one percent of our budget goes towards salaries and employee benefits," he continued. "The rest of our cuts have been wrung out over smaller cuts through the years."

Sumner said he doesn't see the future looking any brighter for the commission.

"The funding is going to get worse," he said. "If the governor makes the cuts as he says (for FY 2005), then there might be a 50-case load for the investigators. We won't shut down, but we'd go into maintenance mode at that point. Essentially, there would be a secretary to answer calls and that would be it."

Other than the investigators, the remaining three employees facing unemployment with the commission are appliance secretaries. According to Sumner, the secretaries issue statements on activities within the commission and file complaints.

"There will be a longer time until complaints are filed, because we'll have a staff of eight instead of 13," Commission Chairman Harold Sorrells of Opp said. "A lot of people will be distraught."

"We've had to take people out (because of cuts) of state departments, and some people from our department were the first ones in and last ones out," Sumner said.

People had to be taken out of the commission, but the Legislature was unfair in dealing the cuts, said Sorrells.

"I disagree with the way the Legislature handled the cuts," Sorrells said. "They didn't cut the Attorney General's office but by 10 percent, but they cut our agency by 18 percent."

Sorrells added Wednesday was a disheartening day.

"It's a sad day in Alabama that this has to happen," he said. "But the public voiced their opinions (on the Sept. 9 vote)."

Sorrels also said he realizes other agencies will have cuts, too.

"What has happened is the Ethics Commission has been depleted," he concluded. "But everybody has to tighten up. The money's just not there."