A Senate panel voted 21-2 Tuesday to revive a near-dead effort to toughen the state’s ethics laws.
But the proposal stands little chance of passing this year on the Senate floor, where senators have dug in their heels in disagreement over whether lawmakers should be allowed to investigate themselves when accused of violating ethics laws.
The Senate Judiciary Committee took up a House-passed ethics bill Tuesday. But rather than consider the House bill, the committee replaced the bill’s language with a proposal nearly identical to one that died in the Senate last month.
That proposal, sponsored by Judiciary chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, died because of the impasse over whether lawmakers should police themselves. That impasse is likely to repeat itself, given the ultimatums senators on opposing sides made Tuesday.
Martin says the S.C. Ethics Commission — not legislators — should investigate complaints against lawmakers. “Ethics ... will not pass this session” without that independent oversight, he added.
The commission now handles ethics complaints against all other state and local public officials. Under Martin’s proposal, it also would investigate ethics complaints against legislators, now handled by the legislative ethics committees.
But Democrats and some Republicans in the GOP-majority Senate support an alternative plan that keeps lawmakers involved in investigating themselves.
Citing the understaffed Ethics Commission’s workload, state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, proposed creating a new ethics panel, made up of lawmakers and members of the public, to handle only ethics complaints against lawmakers.
Rankin called his plan “as transparent as it can be.”
“This (plan), for the first time ever, puts the public at oversight ... of House and Senate members,” he said Tuesday. “They will no longer be able to say they can’t see behind that thick cloak ... that no one can see through.”
State Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, said he supports Rankin’s proposal as a compromise that could allow the ethics bill to pass. Johnson said Rankin’s bill includes other proposals that he supports, such as tougher rules on income disclosure for public officials.
But good-government advocates and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley oppose lawmakers policing themselves, saying the public cannot trust that process.
“They wouldn’t be insisting on legislators being on that committee if they didn’t think those legislators could control the outcomes,” said Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters.
Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, compared legislators investigating their peers to police officers investigating shootings where they are involved.
“The potential for conflict is there because you're investigating yourself,” Hembree said. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”