Senate passage bumps passport fee income cap to $20k

Mar. 3—After nearly an hour of debate this week, Cobb's six state senators all voted to advance a bill capping the amount of personal income county clerks can receive from processing U.S. passport applications.

Senate Bill 19 passed the Senate as a whole 34-19, over the objections of members of both parties who said the measure was a "reactionary bill" advancing only because of increased media attention on the issue.

The proposal from state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, would have originally banned local officials from retaining personal income from processing passports, which is currently allowed under Georgia law.

As the bill progressed, however, it was amended to instead cap the personal income at $7,500. That figure was bumped up again during floor debate to $20,000 following an amendment from state Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan. Brass said he was "simply trying to split the baby."

Kirkpatrick did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the increase in the personal income cap.

Kirkpatrick authored the bill in the wake of media reports that Cobb Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor, who receives a salary of $170,000, had received some $425,000 in additional income from passport fees. Subsequent reports spotlighted the income of other metro Atlanta clerks.

State Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, noted legislation to curb the practice had come forward in 2012, though it never progressed out of the House. But recently, he said, "the language changed."

"The language became, clerks lining their pockets. The language changed to, it's legal, but barely. The language changed to one of schemes of getting money," Jones said. "...It's not because some scholar came to us and said this is why we're going forward. It's because somebody thinks they found something. They didn't find anything. The media didn't find anything."

(Taylor's personal income was only made public following open records requests from media. She is facing a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe over allegations she ordered a subordinate to destroy records of her income.)

The bill also includes language to require more public disclosures of the income, and direct 50% of the proceeds from passport fees to go to counties, while 50% should stay with the clerk's office (not the clerks themselves). That arrangement can be altered, however, via local legislation or a written agreement between the county and their clerk of court.

Other lawmakers said that in moving swiftly to address a problem that had cropped up in metro Atlanta counties, the legislature would be unfairly harming rural counties that depend on the fee income to keep their clerks' offices up and running.

"We are going to win the public relations battle if we vote on this," said state Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton. "But how many of our rural counties are going to say this is not worth my time? And then where are those people going to go?"

State Sen. Derek Mallow, D-Savannah, echoed the sentiment that the Senate was tackling the issue with a heavy hand.

"I'm going to tell you — this is going to impact rural Georgians, because they go to that clerk, and that clerk says I'm not doing it anymore because I can't get along with the county commission. I can't make this work," Mallow said. "...I want you to know that the folks back home, when the clerks tell them that you did this, they're going to let them know that you did it, and they're going to remember that."

Coming to the defense of Kirkpatrick's bill were fellow Cobb Republican senators John Albers and Ed Setzler.

"To demand extra money for doing your job is awfully silly," said Albers, who said in committee he favored eliminating the personal income altogether.

Said Setzler, "Saying this is being done to placate news sources, to prove a point, or using derogatory language — it's none of the above. This is substantive work. (It) should have been done by this body and by the House in 2012, and it wasn't. Let's not let this go another 11 years."

Following Senate passage, the bill now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.