Round 2 of a showdown over ethics reform and various proposals to fix the state’s crumbling roads are among state senators’ upcoming legislative priorities.
Bills dealing with both issues were among more than 170 filed Wednesday – the first day that senators could introduce proposals before the January start of the next two-year session.
State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, filed a bill that, again, would attempt to change the laws governing the behavior of public officials and would end the practice of lawmakers policing themselves in secret.
But Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry – who is chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee that investigated Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat who resigned during ethics hearings – also introduced an ethics reform bill that includes many reforms similar to Martin’s but leaves out independent oversight of lawmakers.
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Both bills revive the debate over updating the state’s two-decade-old ethics laws. An attempt, last spring, died after two years of legislative wrangling. The proposals also come on the heels of the long-awaited outcome of one of the most high-profile public corruption cases in the state’s history – House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s resignation and guilty pleas to campaign finance abuses.
Rankin said Wednesday that a joint House-Senate committee tasked with finding common ground on ethics proposals nearly OK’d his bill last spring.
Martin, citing the need for independent oversight of lawmakers as a way to restore the public’s trust in government, proposes giving a revamped state Ethics Commission the first look at ethics complaints against state lawmakers, instead of having them go first to the House and Senate ethics committees.
Under Martin’s proposal, any complaint, a lawmaker’s response and the Ethics Commission’s findings would be among the documents made public before legislators begin their own investigations.
“It’s a very public, transparent process,” Martin said. “I hope my colleagues will view it a little bit differently this session, than they did last session, in light of what’s going on.”
Martin said he is determined to have a vote on the issue of independent oversight.
“If folks want to walk out on that plank and say, ‘No, I oppose that,’ that’s fine,’ he said. “But I am past the point of compromising on whether we’re going to have a vote.”
Martin’s bill also would:
• Require candidates, public and elected officials to report more details about their income
• Require political groups, now free from disclosure rules, to report where they get their money and how they spend it
• Sharpen laws dealing with how campaign dollars can be used, increasing penalties for abuses
A tax trade-off?
Meanwhile, state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, wants to increase the gas tax by 2 cents a gallon annually, for 10 years in a row, in exchange for lowering the state’s income tax brackets by two cents on the dollar.
The tradeoff would increase the state’s gas tax to 36 cents a gallon in 2025, up from 16 cents now, according to Grooms’ bill.
Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would veto any increase in the gas tax, which has not been increased in 27 years and is one of the lowest in the nation.