VOTERS IN Columbia’s House District 75 are fortunate to have two smart, capable, mainstream candidates to choose from in next month’s election.
Republican Rep. Kirkman Finlay and Democratic challenger Joe McCulloch both cite as priorities carefully reviewing and scaling back tax exemptions and loopholes, tackling our growing infrastructure backlog and prioritizing how the state spends money — something you’d think is done, but that isn’t. Both are pragmatists who have been actively involved in public life long enough for us to have confidence in their integrity.
We worried two years ago that Mr. Finlay would only add to the excessive partisanship that increasingly infects the House. Happily, he has not been the divisive figure we feared, and today he considers one of his greatest attributes his role as a bridge-builder between the parties.
But he has taken a surprisingly disturbing position on a vitally important matter: ethics reform.
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Mr. Finlay set out to be a leader on this matter, and still has that ambition; he has emerged as a key ally of the League of Women Voters, and pushed for some useful reforms that that group and our editorial board support. But as a trade off, he sponsored one of the most troublesome proposals that was put forward in the name of “ethics reform”: a bill to grant amnesty to legislators who convert campaign funds to personal use or otherwise spend the money illegally, as long as they reimburse their campaign accounts after they get caught. After people started asking questions, a retroactive provision that could have shut down the corruption investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell was stripped from the bill, and Mr. Finlay said he never intended for it to affect current investigations.
We believe he likely was bamboozled, but what’s even more troubling is that he still does not see the problem with granting legislators’ get-out-of-jail-free cards, arguing that such an approach is necessary to overcome legislative paranoia and pass other ethics reforms. To make matters worse, he signed on as a cosponsor of another Harrell-amnesty measure that would have stripped the attorney general of the power to investigate legislators — and unlike most other sponsors, he did not withdraw his support once it became clear what the legislation did.
This one matter might not be a disqualifier if Mr. Finally had an unimpressive opponent, or an opponent whom we considered wrong on important issues. Neither is the case.
For instance, Mr. McCulloch has a much more complete vision than Mr. Finlay of how to improve public education, from making sure kids in poor districts have as many opportunities as those in suburban districts to making sure school funds are better spent, such as by consolidating districts to eliminate duplication; Mr. Finlay cites the need to improve vocational education, but has little else to say on the topic.
Mr. Finlay has not been a bad legislator. We simply believe Mr. McCulloch would be a better legislator. And when it comes to reforming our ethics law in a way that will hold elected officials accountable for their actions, and help restore public trust in our government, Mr. McCulloch would be a much better legislator. Voters would do their district and our state well to support him on Nov. 4.
In their own words
We asked candidates for the House to complete a questionnaire as part of our endorsement process. Read their answers at thestate.com/1107.