Gov. Nikki Haley has been berating the Senate for weeks for not passing the ethics bill (H.3722) sent over by the House. She has good reasons. There is no justification for the Senate to deadlock over whether exclusively civil enforcement of ethics laws should be placed in the hands of the anemic State Ethics Commission or a new type of legislative ethics committee composed of four legislators and five citizens, as proposed by Sen. Luke Rankin. Either plan would provide sufficient independent investigation.
Under the state constitution, criminal jurisdiction over legislators’ violations of all laws, including the ethics law, is the monopoly of law enforcement — not the commission or legislative ethics committees. The attorney general also has full civil jurisdiction. Perhaps the real reason for the deadlock is opposition to reform, and the jurisdictional dispute is just a smoke screen.
But there is more to government ethics than the laws that ban bribery, the conversion of campaign funds to personal use and hand-outs from lobbyists to legislators. A more fundamental ethical crisis and conflict is created when Gov. Haley and state legislators fail to meet their responsibilities to protect the health and safety and promote the general welfare of the citizens of South Carolina.
This is the type of ethical crisis that Haley and legislators face as the 2015 session of the General Assembly comes to an end without decisive action to deal with the evils caused by bad roads that cause a disastrously high rate of deaths and catastrophic injuries. This is the type of ethical crisis caused by elected leaders’ failure to deal with poor quality schools that blight the lives of young people until they die. This is the type of ethical crisis caused when leaders fail to accept federal Medicaid funds to care for the poor and elderly, who then suffer and die needlessly.
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This is the type of ethical crisis caused when politicians put their own desire to be political celebrities or candidates for higher office ahead of their duty to help the people who most need help.
South Carolina faces major ethical crises in 2015 far more important than Lt. Gov. Ken Ard spending campaign funds on personal clothing, Sen. Robert Ford misusing his campaign account to buy sex novelties or even House Speaker Bobby Harrell pocketing $300,000 of his campaign money. As sordid and shabby as was the criminality of this infamous triumvirate, nobody died or had their lives ruined as a result — as happens when our leaders refuse to fix the roads or accept federal funds to cover the uninsured or improve bad public schools.
Ethics laws are designed to prevent officials from putting their own private financial interests ahead of their ethical duty to act based on the public good rather than their own financial benefit. Unethical conduct includes taking a bribe to take an action that an official would otherwise oppose as contrary to his best judgment and the public welfare.
But it’s also corruption that causes officials to put personal political interests ahead of doing what they know is best for the people. Repairing dangerous roads to save lives and providing decent public schools to help our young people have better lives are more important than opposing taxes, but officials think that opposing taxes will help when they run for office. Adequate medical care for children, the elderly and the poor serves the public interest, but some politicians think opposing Medicaid expansion will help them get more campaign donations and more votes.
It is all too easy to think that passing an ethics bill will provide ethical government. But in the end, misusing campaign funds is much less unethical than causing death and destruction on the highways, needless suffering from lack of medical care and hopeless lives from a bad education. Embezzling money is not as bad as putting personal political ambitions ahead of lives of the five million citizens of South Carolina.
A new ethics law will not resolve the ethical crisis that is afflicting the leadership and people of South Carolina.
Mr. Crangle is executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina; contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.