Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Want more jobs? Overhaul ethics law

Former SC Attorneys General Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock join Gov Nikki Haley to discuss ethics reform. They led a Haley-appointed panel that recommended a smart overhaul of our law.
Former SC Attorneys General Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock join Gov Nikki Haley to discuss ethics reform. They led a Haley-appointed panel that recommended a smart overhaul of our law. tdominick@thestate.com

WHAT IF, with a single bill, the Legislature could entice more jobs to South Carolina, and repair our roads, and protect our water and air, and at least make it easier to provide a better education to poor kids?

Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock say there is such a bill, and it’s gasping for air over at the State House: It’s the House-passed ethics reform bill that is bogged down on the Senate calendar. (A Senate bill would work as well, if the language that gutted it were removed, but it’s in what appears to be a permanent vegetative state.)

“I don’t think the people sense that this legislation is a pocketbook issue, but it is a pocketbook issue,” said Mr. Medlock, the Democratic member of this duo of ethics-crusading former state attorneys general. “For instance, y’all are talking about the Edisto River becoming a creek. Who wouldn’t like to know if there is someone who is having gainful employment regarding it, perhaps on the local level, council, at a state agency or perhaps in the Legislature? You can go from that river to that mountain of trash that is shipped in from other states. Who wouldn’t want to know what personalities were involved in the development of our becoming New Jersey’s trash can?”

Mr. Medlock is quick to note that he has no evidence of corruption in government, that he respects people who are willing to serve in public office and counts many close friends among legislators; it’s just that people tend to be more honest when their motivations are public. And one of the big things a real ethics-reform law would do is require elected and appointed officials to tell us who provides them with income.

That disclosure requirement, he says, will tell people “whether or not there are these extraneous intervening monetary incentives that are causing their taxes to go up, that are causing their expenses to go up.”

Actually, it might be more a way to greatly reduce the chance of having those “extraneous intervening monetary incentives,” because most officials likely would stop accepting money that would be embarrassing to disclose. And that would allow them to think about putting our interests ahead of the interests of those former employers or clients whose interests might clash with ours.

When you combine the self-regulating effect of income disclosure with independent investigations of legislators and tougher and surer enforcement for everyone, Mr. McMaster says, an ethics bill becomes a jobs bill.

“When you can get good legislation going through on a whole lot of things, which will happen when there is not undue influence or the fear of undue influence, we can get jobs going, and everything works better,” he told me last week.

Mr. McMaster argues that our state has all the advantages it needs to woo top-flight manufacturers such as Volvo — from the collaboration of our research universities to clean water, a good environment, low electricity prices, a deep-water port and a business-friendly environment — with one exception: that big fat “F” ranking we have for ethical government.

“If with the stroke of a pen we could put ourselves in the top category on ethics, we would have an enormous advantage over the competition,” he said. “There would be businesses investing, and that means more tax money coming into the coffers to do the things we need, including on schools, education, and people would have jobs so there would be less crime, less domestic violence, less alcoholism. When you have people working, a lot of problems go away.”

Granted, when you get him wound up, Mr. McMaster can sound a bit like a come-on for the latest kitchen gadget that slices and dices and kneads and fries and does the laundry and watches the kids while you’re out dancing. Truth be told, the connection between a more ethical state government and a better state to live in isn’t quite that direct. But he and Mr. Medlock do make a very good point: When you’re trying to woo reputable companies, it’s an advantage to be a state that doesn’t have actual or perceived pay-to-play politics.

Here’s another very good point they make: Ethics really does matter to voters, even if they don’t talk in those terms.

Mr. McMaster has gotten to know state senators much, much better since his election in November as lieutenant governor, and he noted that a favorite argument of reform opponents is that ethics can’t be a priority because people don’t stop them at the grocery store or basketball game or anywhere else and demand that they pass an ethics bill. “I would turn that around and say, ‘How many times have you heard people say all politicians are crooked?’ Well, when they say that, they’re saying ‘We need an ethics bill.’”

Mr. Medlock says the public wants ethics reform so much that “if you put this thing to a referendum, it would be voted in by 101 percent.”

Huh? “Some people would vote twice.”

Well, maybe the prospect of voter fraud isn’t the best argument to make in favor of an ethics bill. But you get the idea.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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