Politics & Government

SC Senate deal revives ethics reform

File: The South Carolina State House.
File: The South Carolina State House. tdominick@thestate.com

Ethics reform lives.

Hopes of strengthening the state’s ethics laws were revived Thursday, when the S.C. Senate voted to give the bill priority status, a move that could make possible a vote this year. But Republican and Democratic senators said differences between the parties, which still need to be ironed out, could delay the reform’s passage until next year.

Leaders in the majority-Republican Senate hit a roadblock Wednesday when they tried to bring the bill, aimed at strengthening the laws that govern public officials, to the floor for a vote. A motion to give the bill priority status fell short of the two-thirds majority needed, defeated by a coalition of seven dissident Republicans, many with Tea Party-libertarian ties, and 13 Democrats, who said the state had more pressing issues and ethics reform should not be rushed.

However, all seven Republicans reversed themselves Thursday as the Senate voted 31-14 to give the bill priority status, a move that required 30 votes.

Twenty-eight Republicans joined three Democrats in voting to advance the legislation. Among the Democrats was state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, his party’s likely candidate for governor in 2014 against Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

The key to a deal was an agreement to put a bill that would bar the state or its workers from aiding in the implementation of some provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act on the Senate calendar. That bill also was given a priority spot, behind the ethics bill.

Helping the Senate’s Tea Party-libertarian supporters of that legislation move their anti-Obamacare bill to priority status was “critical” in getting their support to revive ethics reform, said Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland.

Fourteen Democrats still voted to scuttle reform this year, a sign that the proposal still faces opposition.

Between Wednesday’s defeat and Thursday’s vote, Senate Democrats and Republicans struck a deal to try to resolve their differences about the bill, Courson said.

That willingness to work together to improve the bill could mean more productive work on the proposal is to come, said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

Hutto, who voted against making ethics a priority both days, said the Senate’s minority-party Democrats do not oppose ethics reform but think the bill needs to be fully vetted, not rushed through the Legislature. Senators complained Wednesday the House only the passed the bill four weeks ago, limiting the time the Senate — consumed by budget debate — had to spend on the topic.

Ethics reform still could pass this year, Hutto said, adding he would not mind if it were resolved next year.

Some Democrats are upset that Republican Haley, whose ethics have been challenged, has sought to portray herself as a champion of ethics reform. Last week, Haley called on lawmakers to pass ethics reform this year, calling it her No. 1 priority for this legislative session.

Ethics reform became a cause in the Legislature after controversies embroiled former Gov. Mark Sanford, forced the resignation of Lt. Ken Ard and saw Haley tried twice by a House committee — and cleared — of ethics allegations.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, also is the subject of an ongoing investigation into his use of campaign money. Sanford, Ard, Haley and Harrell all are Republicans.

However, the Senate began ethics hearings Thursday against state Sen. Robert Ford, a Charleston Democrat, centered on allegations that he has misused donations.

Ethics is shaping up to be a key issue in the 2014 race for governor.

Thursday morning, state Sens. Sheheen and Wes Hayes, R-York, published an opinion piece in The State newspaper and on thestate.com urging lawmakers to pass ethics reform this year.

In a news release sent out Thursday morning, Sheheen said he has “fought for government restructuring and ethics reform” for the past seven years, taking a swipe at Republican rival Haley. “It’s time for the governor, her Republican leadership in the Legislature and members on both sides of the aisle to come together and finally pass real reform,” Sheheen said.

After the ethics bill was given priority status, Republican Hayes sent out a news release explaining why he wrote the newspaper op-ed with Democrat Sheheen, saying he always has worked “both sides of the aisle to deliver reforms to make our state stronger.”

Hayes went on to call fellow Republican Haley of Lexington a “champion for passing meaningful ethics reform.”

“Even in the wake of partisan gamesmanship, she has led the collective efforts to get this passed,” Hayes said. “Governor Haley is to be applauded for her efforts, not attacked. It’s time to move forward in the Senate and pass this important legislation.”

Senate leader Courson also said a Thursday article in The State newspaper that included Wednesday’s roll-call vote, showing who voted for and against making ethics reform a priority, was a “catalyst” in keeping the issue alive.