Scoppe: Ethics reformers should welcome Haley

Associate EditorAugust 28, 2012 

COULD WE ALL take a deep breath, and focus on the big picture here?

South Carolina has some of the most pathetic ethics requirements in the nation. Sixth-most corruptible state, according to a groundbreaking study out this year.

We don’t have a clue how our lawmakers make a living, and so we have no idea when they’re working for us and when they’re working for themselves. And on those occasions when we do have a clue, we don’t have laws sufficient to keep them from working for themselves, or their patrons.

We let legislators police their own ethics compliance, and even if they want to do their jobs, the ethics enforcers — like the independent State Ethics Commission that guards everyone else’s ethics — can’t do adequate investigations because we’ve stripped them of funding.

Our campaign-disclosure law, already embarrassingly easy to manipulate, has been rendered practically meaningless by a court ruling that the Legislature has spent two years refusing to respond to.

Rather than prohibiting or even outing it, we accept and even expect nepotism, cronyism and patronage in everything from the most sought-after board appointments to the most mundane, low-level positions.

So when the governor hauls out her bully pulpit to join the discordant chorus demanding ethics reform, what do we do? Welcome a powerful new voice to the crusade? Or rip into her motivations, and lash out at the shortcomings of her proposals?

The political class’ answer came faster than the governor’s state plane could hop from Charleston to Myrtle Beach on her ethics-reform tour last week. It was nearly as childish as the governor’s response to the first question at her first news conference.

Well, maybe not quite as childish. Best as I can tell, everything critics said about the governor’s vast personal experience with all the actions she wants to outlaw was true. The governor, on the other hand, said she wouldn’t answer any questions from The State’s Gina Smith because Ms. Smith had written an article “about me being indicted,” even though neither Ms. Smith nor anyone else here has even implied any such thing; but I think our news department is getting used to that sort of baseless accusations.

Still, the political class’ response, while perhaps emotionally satisfying, was at best short-sighted.

Yes, I understand that legislators are terribly frustrated with trying to work with a governor they see as so transparently self-promotional that she would rather roll out her plans independently than coordinate with the people who will determine their fate, since that would strip her of the ability to treat the Legislature as her whipping boy. Again.

Yes, this was transparently timed to add another talking point for her coming-out party at the Republican National Convention (Make state employees share in the cost of their perks. Check. Roll out a package of ethics reforms. Check.), and without any criticism, the national media might have missed the context. Again.

And yes, it was sort of fun to remove the names and try to guess which “your momma” critique was from House Democrats and which was from House Republicans (hint: the one that suggested the governor would be negotiating terms for a plea bargain now if her proposals were already law was not from the Democrats).

But really, if the governor is advocating smart changes that we need, changes that Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate all say they want, does it matter why?

Yes, I understand that the S.C. Policy Council is terribly frustrated, having single-handedly created the phenomenon that is Nikki Haley, Transparency Crusader, only to watch her morph into the Empress of Opacity. And I understand that the libertarian think tank has created its own package of reforms to cure all that ails South Carolina — a lot of which are very good ideas.

But honestly, complaining that the governor’s ethics package didn’t include a proposal to let governors appoint judges is sort of like complaining that it didn’t include comprehensive tax reform — or next year’s budget. Things we need, yes, but not part of “ethics reform.”

The reason we haven’t made any significant improvements to our ethics law in two decades is that legislators always load down ethics bills like a Christmas tree. What starts out as a simple bill to close a single loophole gets amended with everyone’s pet project. And in the end, it collapses under its own weight.

And that’s when the ethics bills are confined to ethics law changes.

Now we want to load them down with every possible good-government reform you can think of — and some not-so-good ones. And criticize the governor because she doesn’t want to do the same.

Or because her motives are impure.

Well, if we only allowed the pure of heart to join our political debates, it would be pretty quiet around here.

Gov. Haley didn’t roll out any new ideas last week. Not even new to her. She called on legislators to do things they’ve needed to do for years: Turn enforcement of legislative ethics over to the independent State Ethics Commission. Require lawmakers to report all sources of income. Extend conflict-of-interest laws to cover legislators’ actions in subcommittee and committee, not just in the full House or Senate. Subject themselves to the same open-records laws as the rest of the government.

Could we, should we do more to improve our ethics law? Absolutely.

But why in the world would anyone who actually wants to reform our ethics law not echo the sentiments of Senate Ethics Chairman Wes Hayes, who has toiled longer and harder than any other member of the Legislature to improve it?

“I appreciate her raising ethics to the top of her agenda,” he said.

Whatever her motivations, so should we all.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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