State House for Sale: The story thus far

November 2, 2013 

Ethics scandals have dominated S.C. political news in recent years, leading both political parties to say that ethics reform is a legislative priority. An ethics reform bill is working its way through the state Legislature but faces significant roadblocks. Since May, The State newspaper has examined loopholes in the state’s ethics laws.

Read all of the stories by clicking here.

A summary of those stories thus far:

Issue: Former legislators turned lobbyists

Why it matters: State lawmakers can parlay their public service into high-paying lobbying jobs, using connections they made in the Legislature to push moneyed interests before their former State House colleagues. At least 66 former lawmakers, legislative staffers and state regulators have registered to lobby the Legislature in the past two years. Critics say the state needs to pass laws requiring lawmakers to wait several years after leaving the Legislature before they can lobby, preventing public office from becoming a stepping stone to lucrative lobbying jobs.

Status of proposed reform: In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 18-0 to approve a bill that would require state officials to spend eight years of out office before they could lobby the Legislature. The state Senate will debate the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Issue: Who is paying state lawmakers?

Why it matters: State lawmakers have to tell everyone how much money they make from public sources and lobbyists. But loopholes abound. For example, lawmakers don’t have to tell the public what private companies are paying them. Critics say lawmakers need to identify the sources of all of their income to identify any conflicts of interest.

Status of proposed reform: The state House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this year that would require lawmakers to disclose all of their sources of income but not the amounts. The state Senate is scheduled to debate the law when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Issue: Who is lobbying the Legislature?

Why it matters: State ethics laws require lobbyists to register with the state and say who is paying them. But you do not have to register as long as you are not paid directly to lobby and your expenses do not exceed $500 a year. Critics say those rules allow some organizations to lobby without registering with the state.

Status of proposed reform: None. The ethics reform bill that lawmakers are considering does not include any changes to lobbyist disclosure laws.

Issue: Who is buying lawmakers’ lunch?

Why it matters: No one knows how much some special-interest groups spend to wine and dine state lawmakers during the legislative session. State law only requires groups to disclose that expense if they also employ a registered lobbyist. Of the 95 groups that held special events for lawmakers during this year’s legislative session, only 24 employed a lobbyist, meaning most of the groups did not have to disclose how much they spent wining and dining legislators.

Status of proposed reform: None. The ethics reform bill that lawmakers are considering does not include changes to address wining and dining legislators.

Issue: Who is contributing to lawmakers’ campaigns?

Why it matters: Lawmakers in powerful leadership roles often get a big boost in their campaign accounts from special interests. Critics say those special interests often bundle contributions from like-minded donors – totaling thousands of dollars – in an attempt to buy influence with key lawmakers who set the legislative agenda, influence unavailable to regular citizens.

Status of proposed reform: None. State law limits campaign contributions to $1,000 per election cycle from an individual donor, and lawmakers say those limits curb the influence of money on politicians’ decisions. The ethics reform bill that lawmakers are considering does not include any changes to campaign contributions.

Issue: How are lawmakers spending campaign contributions?

Why it matters: State lawmakers spend millions of dollars each year from their campaign accounts, expenditures that have landed a handful of officials, who used campaign money to buy personal items, in hot water. Lawmakers also set the rules as to which expenditures are permissible and, in some cases, those rules are intentionally unclear. Critics say an independent ethics commission – not legislators – should oversee the General Assembly’s ethics rules, including spending by candidates.

Status of proposed reform: The House of Representatives passed a bill that would create an ethics commission made up of lawmakers and citizens. The state Senate is scheduled to debate that bill in January. However, many Senate leaders oppose the idea.

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