S.C. senators are getting a head start on the upcoming General Assembly session, debating a proposal Wednesday that would end the practice of lawmakers investigating themselves.
A Senate panel —weighing the first sweeping changes to state ethics law in a generation — met for a second time Wednesday, a week before lawmakers begin this year’s regular six-month session.
The pre-session meeting is part of an effort to avoid rushing the controversial ethics-reform plan through the State House in the last days of the session.
The Senate panel’s leader — Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens — said he hopes to advance the ethics-reform bill next Tuesday and have the full Senate vote on the changes by February.
Last year, proposed ethics changes died in a last-minute Senate vote on the final day of the session.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, said Wednesday that he expects state representatives to move as quickly as the Senate. A House panel met last month to discuss the reforms to include in ethics law changes. Representatives agreed on independent investigations for lawmakers.
Now, the Senate and House have similar proposals to create a new state Ethics Commission. Its members, appointed by the governor and legislators, would investigate complaints against state lawmakers. The commission would refer cases to the House and Senate ethics committees for possible punishment.
The current Ethics Commission, appointed entirely by the governor, cannot investigate legislators. The House and Senate ethics committees do that job, though the state attorney general also can investigate lawmakers.
A compromise version of the ethics bill that died last year did not include an independent group to investigate of lawmakers. That provision is considered a linchpin to any ethics deal, especially after House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned last year as part of a guilty plea on campaign-finance charges.
Martin said regaining public trust of the General Assembly is vital. But several obstacles remain to winning passage of ethics law changes, including requiring public officials to disclose more about their private sources of income, political observers said.
The S.C. House has split its ethics proposals into several bills, while a single bill has been introduced in the Senate. The main House ethics bill also would shift oversight of complaints against judges to the new Ethics Commission, which many senators will not consider.
However, Pope, who sponsored two of the House ethics bills, said differences can be hammered out by a conference committee of House and Senate members.
If approved by the end of the session in June, new rules could be in place for the 2016 election, when all members of the General Assembly are up for re-election.
Still, some lawmakers oppose changing who investigates allegations against lawmakers, saying they don’t want to give up the power to police themselves.
Senate Ethics Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, said legislators are trying to change who polices them because of the S.C. House’s past problems in handling ethics complaints.
Rankin said lawmakers should debate issues more pressing to South Carolinians before tackling ethics.
“Are we building roads? Are we educating children? Are we helping our families with the key essentials that we’re charged to provides here?” he asked. “Or are we doing some window dressing to fix the Bobby Harrell problem?”