Cindi Ross Scoppe

How to make sure SC legislators really tell us who pays them

tglantz@thestate.com

IF A LEGISLATOR who is a criminal defense attorney is pushing a change to the DUI law, we understand that there might be a conflict between his interests and the public’s interest. Ditto a doctor trying to change the rules for Medicaid coverage. So as voters, we can decide whether that bothers us.

The potential conflicts aren’t usually that obvious, though. And that is the driving force behind the four-year push to require our legislators to tell us the sources of their income.

But there’s a big difference between agreeing that the public needs to know more about legislators’ personal finances — which is where we seem finally to be in South Carolina — and deciding precisely what that means. There’s a difference between agreeing on what it means and writing a law that reflects that meaning. There’s a difference between writing a law that reflects that meaning and writing a law that looks like it reflects that meaning.

And that is where we seem to be now that the House and Senate have both passed income-disclosure bills.

On balance, the House bill will give us more information than the Senate bill. But there is no reason we should have to take one bill or the other — and little likelihood that legislators would agree to that anyway.

Legislators and other public officials already have to report the amount of money they receive from the government, lobbyists, people who hire lobbyists and, in limited cases, government contractors. The goal of the income-disclosure bills is to have them tell us the sources — though not the amount — of other income.

Under the bill passed last year by the House, public officials would have to report the name of any business from which they or their immediate family members derive income. Income is defined broadly enough to close the loophole the State Ethics Commission created by declaring that “income” doesn’t include consulting fees.

The disclosure bill the Senate passed last month is more convoluted, and it’s not clear it would close the consulting-fee loophole. Public officials would have to report both the name and the primary activity of any business from which they derive at least $500 a year “for services actually rendered.” I think senators wanted to avoid having to report rental income — which does not strike me as a good idea — but the “actually rendered” language is disturbingly vague. Does it mean they still won’t have to tell us if they’re on retainer with a business that’s looking for legislative favors but doesn’t have a lobbyist?

The current requirement that legislators tell us if they receive any money from the government or if they receive $200 or more in a year from a lobbyist or someone who hires a lobbyist usually is not a problem. But it could be for, say, the legislator who owns a fast-food restaurant: He’s supposed to know, keep track of and report the fact that a lobbyist, over the course of a year, buys $200 worth of meals from his drive-through.

The Senate attempted to fix this problem by saying no reporting is required when the money is paid at fair-market value in a “commercial transaction.” That sounds like a good solution — until you think about all the other transactions it could exempt.

Without clearer language (what precisely is a “commercial” transaction?), it’s easy to imagine a lawyer-legislator arguing that he’s selling his services to lobbyists and their employers at a fair-market rate — no matter how much he’s overcharging. The bill might even allow that lawyer-legislator (and all sorts of other legislators ) to avoid reporting money he’s paid by the government.

If someone can come up with a fix for the fast-food restaurant problem without creating the lawyer-legislator loophole, then we need to fix it. Otherwise, we need to leave the current reporting requirement in place.

Another section of the current law requires public officials to report any compensation they receive from anyone who has a contract with the governmental entity they work for. This has been interpreted very narrowly, so that, say, House members only have to tell us if they receive money from someone who has a contract with the House — not with the other parts of the government they control.

The Senate bill broadens this requirement, so people who work for the state are covered when they are paid by state government contractors, and local officials are covered when they are paid by anyone who contracts with their local government. And that’s good.

But instead of reporting any “compensation” received from the contractor, lawmakers would have to report the amount of the government contract. That’s an entirely different thing, and I still haven’t figured out how that information would be the least bit useful.

Between them, these two bills have a lot of good provisions that will make it a lot easier to see our legislators’ conflicts. That in turn will make them a lot more careful about how they resolve those conflicts. The challenge is making sure the bill that ends up on the governor’s desk includes those useful provisions — instead of the not-so-useful ones.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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