Your state legislature meets in a few weeks and, among many issues, will begin working on resolving the gaping hole in the state budget. Last month, I filed a bill in the Georgia Senate — Senate Bill 7 — that would allow chairs of legislative committees to administer an oath to those giving testimony to the committee. If the bill passes, those that violate their oath and deliberately give false testimony or information on a material issue would be subject to criminal sanction. In this budget climate, we must have the best information available.
The volume and complexity of issues that come before the legislature grows with each passing year, and legislators increasingly rely on those who come before committees to fill the gap. This bill would discourage witnesses from concealing potentially harmful information or fudging potentially helpful information offered during the debate of pending legislation. Our legislative decisions must be made on the basis of what is best for Georgians. The allocation of our limited state resources is the most important issue we face and all efforts should be undertaken to ensure that decisions are made based upon the best, and most reliable, information available.
Currently, an individual commits a felony when they provide false information to any agency of state government, except the General Assembly. SB 7 bill would require no more than what is already required of those who elect us to office. Moreover, the provisions of SB 7 are consistent with what is already required by the Congress as well as many other states.
Beyond the need to guaranty integrity to the process, there is another reason for the bill. We simply do not have enough resources to independently research and investigate the mountain of issues that erupt each year. Hundreds of bills are produced by both chambers, and the legislature meets for 40 legislative days each year.
There is one part of the legislation that deserves explanation: legislators are exempted from penalty. This is a constitutional mandate, not an attempt to provide cover for politicians. Our state constitution, like the federal constitution, sets out a balance of powers between the branches of government, and immunity from prosecution for political speech prevents the executive branch from unduly pressuring members of the legislature with criminal prosecution for actions and speech in political matters. Moreover, it prevents office holders from using the law to criminalize political speech and activity.
On its face, exempting elected officials seems to be laughable. And it would indeed be maddening if legislators could not be held accountable for their words. But that is not the case. Every two years in Georgia, the entire legislature stands for re-election. Voters may, and many times do, fire those that they believe have violated the standards for the office to which they were elected.
Georgians should feel assured that their legislators are working with the best information available, and a criminal sanction for knowingly providing false testimony would provide a needed incentive to balance the other incentives individuals weigh when seeking a change in the law.
Ed Tarver (D-Augusta) is the state senator for the 22nd District.