The S.C. House passed a proposal Thursday to change the way allegations of unethical behavior by lawmakers are investigated.
Under the House proposal, a revamped eight-member state Ethics Commission would investigate allegations against legislators. Those allegations now are investigated by legislators.
After four years of calls to toughen the state’s ethics laws, the House proposal now goes back to the state Senate. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he hopes the Senate will concur with the House plan, sending the proposal to the governor’s desk to become law.
Under the House proposal, the governor would select four members of the eight-member Ethics Commission. The House and Senate would select two members each.
The commission would investigate ethics complaints and determine whether there was probable cause that a violation occurred. The commission then would turn over its findings to the House and Senate Ethics committees for public hearings. Those committees also would render a verdict on the allegations and could impose sanctions, including levying a fine or referring an allegation to law enforcement.
Good-government advocate Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters said the proposal would be a “big improvement” for South Carolina.
Now, legislators discipline themselves, a buddy-buddy system that can protect powerful lawmakers from scrutiny.
Renewed calls for tightening the state’s ethics laws started after several high-profile lawmakers were accused of breaking those laws. Two years ago, for instance, then-S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, resigned and pleaded guilty to spending campaign money on personal expenses.
The House plan was criticized by state Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, who said Ethics Commission members would feel pressure to go easy on certain individuals when they come before the panel. “This does not eliminate the problem of self-policing.”
However, House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York, said some lawmakers interpret the state Constitution as requiring lawmakers to police themselves.
S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, called on the Senate to pass the House proposal.
“It is my hope that the Senate will vote on this measure immediately so together we promote transparency and accountability in government,” Lucas said.
A shorter legislative session?
A bill that would shorten South Carolina’s legislative session by three weeks most years is on its way to the House floor.
The Judiciary Committee approved legislation Thursday that would end the General Assembly’s yearly sessions on the second Thursday in May. The session currently runs until the first Thursday in June.
The bill would save about $86,000 for each week the Legislature does not meet. It would shave three weeks off the 2017 session. In 2018 and some other years, the session would be four weeks shorter.
The bill has provisions to lengthen the session if the state budget is delayed passing or budget projections are submitted late.
The bill passed the Senate 35-0 last month.