COLUMBIA, SC — The Senate failed to take a vote Thursday on an ethics bill on the final day of the legislative session, killing the biggest possible change in laws regulating legislators in two decades
The proposals that included requiring more income disclosure by public officials as well as their immediate family and more contribution disclosures by political groups was top priority for Gov. Nikki Haley, who is seeking re-election this year.
The General Assembly has talked about ethics reform during the two-year legislative session that started in January 2013, but a compromise was not reached until this month.
The House approved the bill two weeks ago. The Senate also took up the measure two weeks ago as time was running out on the regular session. But Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, filibustered the bill.
Senators came back for a three-day extended session this week but could not take up the ethics bill as opponents ran out the clock on the final day.
An ethics bill can be reintroduced in January when a new two-year legislative session begins.
"We came close and can build on it," said Sen. Wes Hayes, a York Republican considered the dean on state ethics issues.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said an outcry from what happens with public corruption allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, might push ethics law changes, including ending House and Senate members policing themselves.
The S.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday about whether accusations that Harrell misused campaign money and used his position to benefit his business should be handled first by a state court or the House Ethics Committee.
"I think the argument being made over there that we're immune from prosecution until ethics issues are addressed by the House and Senate ethics committees, that's going to stir some folks up," Martin said. "Depending on how that case comes out, that could drive that issue next year."
Martin said he wished lawmakers could have passed provisions that would force anonymous political groups to reveal their donors. Martin and Hayes were targets of these types of groups during their 2012 re-election campaigns. A federal court ruled that South Carolina's definition of political groups that had to submit campaign reports were unconstitutional for being too broad. The ethics bill tried to tighten the definition.
Some government reform advocates said they opposed the bill as it was written. John Crangle, director of Common Causes S.C. chapter, has said he's unhappy the bill does not stop the use of campaign funds for non-campaign purposes -- an issue being raised in the Harrell case.
Crangle said he was willing to wait on the ethics bill because in the next session House and Senate members all are up for election.
The S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian think tank, was happy to see a bill with so many "dangerous provisions" die, its president Ashley Landess said. The proposal would have allowed politicians to spend more of their campaign funds on non-political expenses and restricted free speech by making more groups, like hers, disclose their donors, she said.
"Nothing in this bill was a step forward," Landess said.
The ethics bill fight will become fodder in the upcoming governor's race. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat who is challenging Haley in November, sided with those to delay a vote Thursday.
"I'm not just going to pass a bill so that Nikki Haley can pretend she's doing something," Sheheen said. "(I'm) not going to pass a bill that doesn't have real independent oversight of the governor, the Senate and the House. ... It didn't even do the things that she said should occur."
A task force Haley formed last year called for independent oversight, but she was willing to back the version without it.
But Sheheen voted for pass the Senate version of the bill that did not include independent oversight and voted not to accept the House amendments that included an independent investigative group. His campaign said he opposed the bill after taking a closer look at the final version and became troubled with some of the language.
Haley's campaign accused Sheheen of not backing efforts to clean up government.
"The people of our state have fought for and deserve an open, honest and accountable government that serves them," Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said. "(H)e should be ashamed -- the people deserve better."
Hopes for getting a vote on the ethics bill died quickly Thursday as a 5 p.m. deadline loomed for the session to end for the year.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson Republican who opposed the measure, took the podium soon after the Senate convened at 10 a.m. and began a 5 1/2-hour filibuster on a different bill that would allow voters in some counties to consider a tax hike for schools.
Several motions to end the debate failed to get the two-thirds support from the Senate.
Senators typically don't like shutting down their colleagues, but ethics-reform proponents said those who opposed ending Bryant's filibuster did not want to take up the changes of the rules over lawmakers.
Most Senate Democrats in the Senate along with libertarian Republican senators voted to keep the filibuster going on most occasions. The alliance shows the ethics issues was not about partisanship but about doing what's right, said Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican whose mini-filibuster later Thursday killed the bill's chances.
The ethics bill finally was brought up with 90 minutes before the session was set to end. Bill backers tried to push ahead.
"Is it perfect? No," Hayes told senators. He added: "I would hate to go home after two years of effort and not have an ethics bill."
Hayes, like Haley and some other lawmakers, wanted some independent oversight of legislators. The House approved an independent investigative group appointed by the General Assembly, governor and Supreme Court justices that could send cases to ethics committees that hand out punishments.
But most senators did not want to give up control of investigating their colleagues and pointed to the recent campaign-cash case that led to the resignation of Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, last year.
After Hayes and Martin spoke, Davis took the podium and said the measure did not accomplish true reform: "We just didnt do it."
He said lawmakers are just trying to "check a box" that they passed an ethics bill and would not come back to it for another 20 years. The last major ethics reform came two decades ago after the Operation Lost Trust scandal in the State House.
"Ethics is not something you accept incremental progress on," Davis told senators.
He and Bright ran out the clock, and bill supporters could not win enough votes to push for a final roll call.
"Change in the State House is not going to come inside these walls," Davis said after the vote. "The only time you ever get reform is when people from the outside demand it. Because the one thing people in this chamber fear more than anything else is losing an election. So people have to be engaged."