Every so often South Carolinians learn about another politician who has broken the rules and betrayed the trust of his constituency for personal gain. Genuine trust is hard to gain, but easily broken. And it is sad that a corrupt few erode the public’s trust of the entire system.
Members of the S.C. House understand that meaningful ethics reform must take place in order to regain the public’s trust in all elected officials. It starts with promoting accountability and transparency, two ideals that guided us into crafting a comprehensive ethics-reform package.
When House Speaker Jay Lucas assumed office in the fall of 2014, he immediately created an ad hoc committee to study our state’s antiquated ethics code. Gov. Nikki Haley had urged the General Assembly to reform these laws in previous years, but the legislation died before both chambers passed it.
The ad hoc committee, of which I was a member, met several times and carefully crafted a dozen bills that established independent oversight, required disclosure of sources of income, closed loopholes, redefined outdated terms and revised campaign-finance laws. Our sole intention was to restore the public’s trust and begin to repair a fractured relationship that exists because of a few self-serving politicians.
By March of 2015, the House had passed every one of our bills with overwhelming and bipartisan margins. We purposefully passed them early in the two-year legislative session to give the Senate a year and half to act.
Out of the 12 bills in the House’s ethics-reform package, one has been signed into law, two are stalled in a conference committee and nine did not make it out of committee.
The Senate eventually passed our independent-investigations bill, which establishes an independent body to oversee the investigation of all public officials, including legislators, but altered it significantly. So last month, the House, Senate and governor’s office began detailed negotiations to find a compromise. The House believed that by working together, we could push the bill across the finish line more easily and that fundamental ethics reform would be on its way for South Carolinians.
After weeks of back and forth, five of the six members of the conference committee reached an agreement. House conferees were led to believe that the Senate would support the agreement without a major objection. Although the House made concessions in negotiations, representatives were pleased that our hard work would soon pay off and the independent-investigation bill would soon arrive on the governor’s desk for signature.
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Our hope turned to despair when in the very last hour of the regular legislative session, the deal fell apart. When it came time to vote, the Senate specifically rejected the agreement, with only one senator supporting our compromise. Even worse, the Senate’s objection was over the independent investigators’ ability to make public the existence and grounds of a complaint filed against a legislator.
I do not believe the House will or should abide by the Senate’s position, because the only acceptable version of this bill is the one agreed upon in conference. The sole purpose of creating an independent and autonomous investigative body is to ensure that legislators follow the same ethics rules as all other public officials. The public should always be entitled to know about substantiated accusations against their state representatives and senators.
This week, the House and Senate will meet to take up Gov. Haley’s vetoes and consider conference reports. South Carolinians should still have some hope that the independent-investigation bill will become law this year.
But the only way this will happen is if senators put the interests of the public ahead of their own, come back to the conference table and uphold their end of the deal.
Mr. Pope is speaker pro tem of the S.C. House and a member of the conference committee on independent investigations of legislators’ ethics; contact him at TommyPope@schouse.gov.