Time runs out on ethics reform in South Carolina

Session ends with no action, but backers are hopeful of moving legislation forward in January

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South Carolina’s legislative session came to a close Thursday with a conspicuous absence: ethics reform. While the House passed an ethics bill April 30, and the Senate appeared to be briskly moving the measure through its own legislative process, in the end the upper chamber failed to garner enough support for the bill before the session’s clock ran out.

The measure would have required that legislators begin disclosing their sources of income, while limiting independent political spending and giving an independent Ethics Commission authority to investigate complaints brought against lawmakers. But by most accounts, the bill’s defeat had little to do with its contents.

“The bill became a political soccer ball and I don’t think it was blocked because of the substance of the bill,” said John Crangle, executive director of Common Cause South Carolina.

With time running out on this year’s session, a block of conservative Republicans wanted instead to focus their energies on passing legislation to block federal health care reform in the state; that effort did not pass. Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, blamed Democrats for holding up the ethics bill in final days. Some Democrats have said they support the effort but want more time to vet the bill.

But the bill’s supporters say failure to pass legislation this year is only a minor setback and that they’re confident the measure will be a top priority when the legislature resumes the second half of its two-year session in January.

“It’s on special order to be the first thing we take up,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, a Republican who has been a strong proponent for tougher ethics laws.

Still, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Last year, leaders from both parties and Gov. Haley called ethics a top priority for the session, and they established four advisory panels to develop the key components of ethics legislation. They were responding in part to a surge in public support for reform after former Gov. Mark Sanford, former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and House Speaker Bobby Harrell were each either accused or convicted of violating ethics laws over the past few years. And they were also reacting to the failing grade issued the Palmetto State last year by the State Integrity Investigation —a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. 

The advisory groups released their recommendations and the House quickly took up the cause. But the effort faced questions and controversy from the start. First, Republican leaders in the House introduced a bill but kept its contents secret. When they posted the language, it showed that the legislation would actually decriminalize some ethics violations. Representatives soon changed the language, and the House eventually passed a bill on April 30.

The Senate took up the issue and even improved the language, Crangle said. But politics quickly got in the way. In May, Sen. Robert Ford, a Democrat, resigned in the midst of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into whether he used campaign funds for personal expenses. Days later, a spokesman for Haley said the case was evidence of the need for ethics reform. That in turn angered Democrats, with one saying that Haley, who was cleared in 2012 by the House Ethics Committee on charges of illegal lobbying, is the real example of why reform is necessary. In the end, the bill’s backers did not win enough support from Democrats and right-wing Republicans to pass the bill before the close of the session.

Bickering aside, there is one remaining major policy sticking point. Currently, legislators police themselves through House and Senate ethics committees, a system that watchdogs and even some legislators have criticized.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, a Republican, told The State that the House Committee, which cleared Haley, has “swept some things under the rug over there.”

Rankin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ethics bill would allow the independent Ethics Commission, which oversees the executive branch, to investigate complaints against legislators, but would still leave final decisions on how to handle a case to the legislative committees.

Hayes said the issue of who ultimately decides on ethics matters, and whether the Ethics Commission should even be allowed to investigate legislators, are the only substantive questions that legislators will need to address when they return to January. “There’s a lot of people in the Senate that think that the system that we have, in terms of policing ourselves, works pretty well,” he said.

Some Democrats had said there was no reason to rush a bill through in the final weeks of this year’s session when the issue can be rolled to next year. Crangle of Common Cause South Carolina said the wait will give him time to work on some amendments that would strengthen the financial disclosure provisions and close loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws.

“I can’t say that I’m disappointed in the failure to pass the ethics bill,” he said. With Haley and the entire House up for reelection in 2014, Crangle added, it may be easier to push for stronger reforms next year anyway. It’s been decades since the state passed serious ethics legislation, Crangle said, so he wants to make sure the bill includes as much as possible. “We only get a chance like this once every generation.”

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