After 11/2 years of talk, an ethics reform bill could squeak out of the State House just before lawmakers go home next month. But it likely will not include the independent oversight of legislators sought by government-reform advocates and Gov. Nikki Haley.
Without that independent oversight, two similar ethics reform proposals from the House and Senate are left that could be hashed out in a conference committee, said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens.
Both bills include: requiring lawmakers to disclose all sources of their income as well as their immediate family; banning leadership political-action committees; and redefining political committees so they must file campaign finance-disclosure reports. A federal court order in 2010 allowed those committees to stop filing campaign reports because of wording problems in the current law.
“These are areas we have agreed on,” Martin said. “We ought to seize the opportunity (to) pass it. We have gotten a good bit done.”
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Likely dead is a proposal, passed this week by the House, that would create an investigative panel to examine ethics complaints against legislators, judges, the governor and other constitutional officers. That would leave the House and Senate to continue to investigate and discipline their own members.
State senators have no appetite for an independent oversight committee, saying they have shown they can police themselves. They point to former state Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat who resigned last year after a Senate ethics hearing into his campaign spending. Meanwhile, the House fined state Rep. Harold Mitchell this week over the Spartanburg Democrat’s campaign record-keeping and spending.
Also likely to be cut from the House bill is an amendment that would force the governor to share her power to appoint the nine members of the state Ethics Commission with the state’s other constitutional officers. That commission now oversees statewide and local politicians, not legislators.
Sen. Wes Hayes, a York Republican who is expected to chair the conference committee on ethics bill, said without the House’s independent oversight panel “the rest of the bill is doable.”
House Judiciary Committee chairman Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said he would like to see the investigative committee, proposed by a panel that he chaired, remain. That committee — which the House proposed be appointed by lawmakers, the governor and Supreme Court justices — would examine ethics charges and decide if they needed to be forwarded to the appropriate panel to determine punishment, such as the House and Senate ethics committees.
But, Delleney stressed, “We will not let any one thing get in the way of a bill. I fully intend to have a bill.”
House Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, added, “Sometimes you have to take the victories where you can.”
Haley’s office has not indicated if the governor would veto an ethics bill that does not include independent ethics oversight of legislators.
The Republican governor has invested heavily in the issue, making passage of ethics reform part of her re-election platform. In 2012, she also appointed a task force, led by two former state attorneys general, to develop ethics reform proposals.
“Requiring income disclosure is a good start and positive step forward, but, as we have said all along, truly comprehensive ethics reform means no more legislators investigating legislators,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said Friday. “And we won’t stop fighting until the people of the state have the accountable state government that serves them, not the other way around.”
Lynn Teague, a vice president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, said reform that does not include ending the House and Senate policing their own members would mean “a large part of the job will be left undone.”
Some government-reform advocates are worried about the impartiality of the House Ethics Committee. which soon could hear allegations against Speaker Bobby Harrell. The Charleston Republican is fighting to keep those allegations out of the courts and to allow the ethics panel to weigh them first.
Still, lawmakers are unlikely to leave Columbia without accomplishing anything on ethics, Teague said. “There are some things that are in the bill that are useful.”