Politics & Government

June 18, 2014

SC ethics reform losing steam as clock runs out

When the state Senate takes up a bill to update SC’s 20-year-old ethics law — possibly Thursday, the last day of its extended session — it immediately will face opposition from state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg.

The chances are dimming quickly that ethics reform will pass this year.

The proposal, an update to the state's 20-year-old ethics law, is one Senate vote and a signature by Gov. Nikki Haley away from becoming law.

But when the state Senate takes up the bill — possibly Thursday, the last day of its extended session — it immediately will face opposition from state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg.

Bright says the proposal would limit free speech by requiring some political groups to disclose their donors. Those identities now are secret.

If Bright attempts to filibuster the bill — talking until the extended session ends later Thursday — ethics reform supporters are unsure they have the votes to sit him down and bring the bill to a vote.

Advocates, including state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, say Bright’s fears about limiting free speech are unjustified. Exceptions in the proposal would shield financial information about groups that educate voters about issues — including publishing lawmakers’ voting records — as long as those groups do not tell voters to support or oppose candidates in elections.

But anyone or group trying to influence the outcome of an election would have to report their expenses and at least some of their donors — a much-needed change in the law, advocates say.

Under existing state law, anonymous groups can spend money opposing candidates without reporting their contributors or expenses. That is possible because of a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s definition of the word “committee” was unconstitutional. That ruling tossed out all financial-reporting requirements for groups.

That reporting provision of the ethics reform proposal is especially important to some legislators who said they were targeted by shadowy groups in the 2012 elections. Those groups did not have to disclose their donors, making it impossible for voters to determine their agenda, the legislators said.

“I don't think it's free speech when you can attack from the shadows and put out false information and don't even have to say who you are,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, who supports passing ethics reform. “That to me is an attack on the electoral process, and I think voters have a right to know who influences the process.”

Gov. Haley, who publicly urged lawmakers to pass ethics reform last year, has been quiet on the bill in the legislative session's final days.

Haley's Democratic rival, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, also pushed for ethics reforms last year.

But Sheheen said Wednesday that he has not decided whether he will support the proposal. Sheheen said he is disappointed the proposed reform fails to end the practice of lawmakers policing themselves, does not require public officials to disclose the amounts of their private income and does not outlaw using state vehicles for campaign activities.

Other ethics reform advocates say the proposal is so weak that it would be better for legislators to let it die and start over next year, which would be Year 3 of trying to strengthen the state’s weak ethics laws.

To be considered next year — the first year in a new two-year legislative session — ethics reform would have to be reintroduced.

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