An unlikely coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday dealt a potential death blow to a bill aimed at strengthening the state’s ethics laws — Gov. Nikki Haley’s highest priority for the year.
With only four days left in the legislative session, the state Senate is running out of time to pass the bill, which, supporters say, would strengthen laws that govern public officials.
Leaders of the GOP-majority Senate said Wednesday the proposal, which passed the S.C. House four weeks ago, could be doomed for this year.
“That’s obvious with what’s going on right now,” said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, adding the bill’s opponents are intent on “filibustering everything ahead of it. ... I’ve done everything I could possibly do to get that bill in front of the Senate.”
Last week, Haley urged the Senate to pass the bill this year.
Opposition to the bill lies in an ideologically dissident coalition of Republicans, many with ties to the party’s libertarian-Tea Party wing, and Democrats, who say more important priorities are being overlooked.
“The Affordable Care Act scares my constituents to death,” said state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, one of several Republicans who said the ethics reform bill is not a priority for voters and can wait until next year.
Bryant and other GOP dissidents want the Senate, instead, to take up a bill that would ban state employees or agencies from carrying out parts of the federal health-care law, commonly known as Obamacare.
Most Senate Democrats, who favor at least portions of Obamacare, joined the GOP dissidents in voting against moving ethics reform up the Senate’s calendar, a move designed to ensure a vote this year.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, said there is no urgency in passing the bill, adding its passage by the GOP-controlled House, only four weeks ago, left the Senate with too little time to consider ethics reform.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said Democrats still have concerns about the proposal that need to be worked out, including the composition of the committee that would oversee ethics complaints against lawmakers. Hutto held up getting to the ethics bill Wednesday by debating a bill that would direct money left over from the state’s budget year that ends June 30 to different projects.
Hutto criticized Haley and other lawmakers for saying that protecting taxpayers against the theft of their personal information — such as the hacking incident that happened last year at the state Department of Revenue — was a top priority when little, he said, has been done to address the problem.
The mood in Haley’s office still was optimistic Wednesday.
“The governor has faith that the Legislature will pass ethics reform this year, as the people of South Carolina deserve nothing less,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman.
But GOP Senate leaders were less cheery.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, said the Senate needed to take up the ethics bill Wednesday for it to have a chance of passing this year.
The other option is to include ethics reform in a resolution the Senate must pass in order to come back to work after June 6 — the last day of Legislature’s regular session — to compromise with the House on bills that already have passed both chambers but in differing forms. But that resolution needs a two-thirds majority to pass, and including ethics reform to it would kill it, Courson said.
After ethics controversies that marred the last years of former Gov. Mark Sanford’s second term, forced the resignation of Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and saw Haley twice tried — and cleared — by a House committee, ethics reform was declared a priority for this session by Haley and others last year.
However, Senate supporters of taking up the ethics bill needed 29 votes Wednesday to move the reform to priority status in the upper legislative house. Twenty-four senators — including Haley’s likely 2014 Democratic opponent for governor, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden — voted to give the bill that status. But 20 senators, including 13 Democrats and seven Republicans, voted against taking the bill up.
Watchdog groups that pushed for strengthening ethics laws are pessimistic about the bill’s passage this year.
“Today was not encouraging for getting it through this year,” said Lynn Teague, director of the S.C. League of Women Voters.
John Crangle, director of S.C. Common Cause, said he does not think the bill will pass this year. But, since this is the first year of a two-year session, the bill will not die. Instead, debate can resume in January, giving legislators time to improve the proposal, he said. That’s a good thing, Crangle added.
The last time the state overhauled its ethics laws, lawmakers took about a year to consider the plan, he said.
Crangle said some lawmakers also are sore the ethics proposal has become politicized, with Republican Haley blaming Democrats for holding up the bill, which, he added, has been offered up as “the best thing since the Ten Commandments 3,000 years ago.”
Killing ethics reform?
Last week, Gov. Haley urged the Senate to pass an ethics proposal she called her top priority for this session. But the bill hit a major roadblock Wednesday, when a coalition of Republicans and Democrats voted against placing the bill on priority — a necessary move, leaders say, to ensure passage this year.
Voting “yes” — 24; 29 votes were needed
Thomas Alexander, Oconee
Sean Bennett, Dorchester
Paul Campbell, Berkeley
Chip Campsen, Charleston
Ray Cleary, Georgetown
John Courson, Richland
Ronnie Cromer, Newberry
Mike Fair, Greenville
Greg Gregory, Lancaster
Larry Grooms, Berkeley
Wes Hayes, York
Larry Martin, Pickens
Shane Massey, Edgefield
Harvey Peeler, Cherokee
Luke Rankin, Horry
Katrina Shealy, Lexington
Paul Thurmond, Charleston
Ross Turner, Greenville
Danny Verdin, Laurens
Tom Young, Aiken
Creighton Coleman, Fairfield
Joel Lourie, Richland
Thomas McElveen, Sumter
Vincent Sheheen, Kershaw
Lee Bright, Spartanburg
Kevin Bryant, Anderson
Tom Corbin, Greenville
Tom Davis, Beaufort
Hugh Leatherman, Florence
Shane Martin, Spartanburg
William O’Dell, Abbeville
Karl Allen, Greenville
Robert Ford, Charleston
Brad Hutto, Orangeburg
Darrell Jackson, Richland
Kevin Johnson, Clarendon
Gerald Malloy, Darlington
John Matthews, Orangeburg
Yancey McGill, Williamsburg
Floyd Nicholson, Greenwood
Kent Williams, Marion
Glenn Reese, Spartanburg
John Scott, Richland
Nikki Setzler, Lexington