With lawmakers pushing for ethics reform, some S.C. House budget writers Wednesday pledged to support nearly doubling the State Ethics Commission’s budget.
State Reps. Jim Merrill, Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Liston Barfield said they would try to increase the registration fees for lobbyists to $200 per client from $100. Nearly all of the Ethics Commission’s budget comes from fines and filing fees, with the majority coming from fees paid by lobbyists, according to executive director Herbert Hayden.
The lawmakers also said they support the commission’s request for an extra $327,000 – money that could help the commission implement any new ethics law changes.
If the Ethics Commission ever is going to ask for more money, this is the year.
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Last year, two high-profile ethics investigations ended with the indictment and resignation of Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, R-Pamplico, and an unprecedented legislative investigation of Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, cleared of all charges.
Also, more than 250 candidates statewide were tossed off the ballot for violating a law that did not apply to incumbents. By November, dozens of state House and Senate candidates were campaigning on platforms that stressed the need for ethics reform. Now, there are four separate committees – three legislative plus one appointed by Gov. Haley – meeting to draft ethics legislation.
“They have the leverage,” said Merrill, R-Charleston, referring to the Ethics Commission. “Who really is going to deny a request from the Ethics Commission for something that sounds legit?”
Merrill, Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, and Barfield, R-Horry, are trying to get increased money for the Ethics Commission through a provision in the state budget. They tried to get the same increase last year but failed. Even if they fail again this year, state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, says he is preparing an ethics reform bill that includes raising the lobbyist fees to $200.
What role the Ethics Commission will have in the any new ethics laws remains unclear.
Executive Director Hayden told reporters Wednesday that his agency “barely” has enough money to operate now. Every year, the commission receives 25,000 filings from elected officials and candidates statewide. Hayden said “three or four” of the commission’s 10 employees audit those filings but only if someone complains.
“In order to do a complete audit of candidates’ forms on a regular basis, we would probably need two or three more employees,” Hayden said.
While higher lobbyists’ fees would give the Ethics Commission more money, Hayes said it is unlikely lawmakers will give the commission the $327,000 in additional state money that it has requested from the state’s general fund.
“There is a lot of agencies somewhat in the same boat, and we have limited amount of new money, and a lot of that is going to have to go to Medicaid, unfortunately,” Hayes said, referring to the federal-state health-insurance program for the poor and disabled. “I don’t have a great deal of hope (that) many agencies are going to get much of an increase this year.”