With the November elections fast approaching and early voting already underway, millions of Georgians will decide a host of important issues. Most voters seem far more focused on the Peach State’s gubernatorial and senatorial races, but what they might not expect to find on their ballot is one particularly curious question:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to suspend the compensation of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state school superintendent, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of labor, or any member of the General Assembly while such individual is suspended from office following indictment for a felony?”

Although a far cry from initiative-crazy Western states, Georgians regularly face statewide ballot questions. In fact, there are three others on our midterm ballots. However, they deal with a familiar issue: taxes. The proposed constitutional amendment on elected officials’ compensation, on the other hand, may leave some voters scratching their heads and wondering what the backstory is. The answer actually is quite interesting.

Back in November 2018, Jim Beck (Republican) won the race to be Georgia’s insurance and safety fire commissioner – capturing 50.4 percent of the vote. Compared to many elected posts, in most voters’ eyes, the insurance commissioner is a bit of an obscure position, but it holds immense sway and carries out important functions, including regulating insurance markets.

A Republican winning a statewide office is hardly newsworthy in Georgia, but what happened next was nothing short of astounding. On May 14, 2019 – a handful of months after being inaugurated – a federal grand jury indicted Beck on dozens of counts, ranging from wire fraud to money laundering. All told, prosecutors ultimately alleged that Beck stole over $2.5 million from his prior employer – the Georgia Underwriting Association (GUA), which is an insurance association. The day after this news dropped, Gov. Brian Kemp (Republican) sent a letter to Beck, calling for his resignation. “I ask that you do what is right for our state and step down immediately,” Kemp wrote, but the governor’s hands were tied. He couldn’t force this decision on Beck, given that the insurance and safety fire commissioner is an elected constitutional office. Rather than heeding Kemp’s advice, Beck maintained his innocence and requested to only be suspended – a request that Kemp duly granted. Pursuing a suspension instead of resigning was a smart move for Beck, but not for taxpayers. It allowed Beck to continue drawing the six-figure salary of insurance commissioner plus benefits. Meanwhile, Kemp needed to appoint an acting insurance commissioner and chose then-Doraville Police Chief and Brigadier General John King – meaning Georgia taxpayers had to pay for two commissioners for the same job. In the meantime, Beck’s federal case slowly proceeded as he continued to receive his salary, and the public learned more about the federal government’s accusations against Beck. Former Republican state legislator and then-federal prosecutor “BJay” Pak alleged, “that [Beck] stole money [from the GUA] to pay personal credit card bills and taxes, and pump money into his 2018 campaign for insurance commissioner,” wrote the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Pak said the evidence showed Beck lied to close friends and a family member to get them to create companies to send invoices to his then-employer. The invoices were often for work that wasn’t actually done, and Beck funneled the money back to himself, according to the indictment.” By July 2021, after deliberating for less than two hours, a federal jury convicted Beck on 37 counts. Following his conviction, he was officially removed from office and stopped receiving his salary as elected insurance commissioner. In October of the same year, Beck learned his fate. He was “sentenced to seven years, three months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, ordered to pay restitution in an amount over $2,619,000 and forfeiture of over $426,000, two pieces of real property and a $2,064.781.85 personal forfeiture money judgment,” reads a Justice Department statement. The aforementioned ballot question is intended to prevent another Jim Beck scenario, in which taxpayers were forced to continue paying him. Under the amendment’s language, state lawmakers and certain statewide officials would be prohibited from collecting their salary if they were under felony indictment and suspended from office. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution notes, “Officials who are exonerated of felony charges would return to their jobs and receive back pay.” Given this sordid history, I’d be shocked if Georgians don’t approve the constitutional amendment by wide margins, but it’s certainly an unusual question to ask voters.

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