Cindi Ross Scoppe

3 days, 3 reforms, and failure is still an option

SC Chamber of Commerce President Ted Pitts calls on the Senate to pass a bill to get more money to the state’s roads.
SC Chamber of Commerce President Ted Pitts calls on the Senate to pass a bill to get more money to the state’s roads. AP

A MONTH AGO, after the Senate passed a bill to let an independent panel investigate legislators’ ethics compliance, and a bill to require public officials to tell us where they get their income, and a road-funding plan that wasn’t nearly as irresponsible as its first one — all in one week — there was an outbreak of irrational exuberance at the State House. Not only were the pieces all in place for the Legislature to enact some serious ethics reforms and overhaul the parochial Transportation Commission, the cockeyed optimists said, but lawmakers might even wrap up their work early.

How droll.

With just three days remaining in the regular legislative session, the independent-oversight bill is in a conference committee that hasn’t met yet. The roads legislation has been stuck in conference for a month. The income-disclosure bill hasn’t even made it to conference, and senators warn that the House torpedoed it on Thursday.

UNDERSTANDING INDEPENDENT OVERSIGHT: Must-do on ethics: independent, transparent oversight; significant income disclosure

UNDERSTANDING INCOME-SOURCE DISCLOSURE: How to make sure SC legislators really tell us who pays them

The problem isn’t time; barring a big surprise, all three bills can be voted on when the Legislature returns on June 15 to consider gubernatorial vetoes. The problem is will. The House and Senate might not reach an agreement on any of the bills — despite what look like relatively minor differences on all three.

The trouble is that no one can really figure out what — or who — the holdups are. That makes it difficult to come up with a compromise — how do you suggest an alternative when you don’t know what the objection is? — and impossible to know who to hold accountable if these reforms die. Again.

“The House isn’t interested in passing income disclosure,” a Senate leader told me Thursday, just a few minutes after a House leader told me that “the Senate has no intention of passing income disclosure.”

The House’s disclosure legislation goes a lot farther than the Senate’s to actually tell us where legislators and other public officials get their money. I’m told that after three weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, lawmakers managed to come to terms on nearly all of their disagreements. But not quite all. Then on Thursday, the House added a section to its bill to require special interests to tell us where they get their money to influence our votes — a wonderful idea, but one the Senate doesn’t have the votes to pass.

Lawmakers say the other ethics bill is in much better shape, after they worked out what they believed were all the differences in House and Senate plans to let a reconstituted State Ethics Commission investigate complaints against legislators and make its findings public. (The House and Senate Ethics committees still would decide guilt or innocence, and punishment.) Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he decided to send the bill to conference committee rather than trying to get the Senate to adopt the House’s compromise version because he wasn’t sure he could get the bill up for a vote; bills don’t generally have to wait in line for a vote once they’ve been to conference.

Of course, the fact that he saw such a problem indicates someone in the Senate is determined to block the bill, which suggests that not even this is a sure thing. And like most such matters in the Senate, we’ll probably never be able to identify the obstructionist.

On roads, House leaders complain that one group of senators wants to pass the plan to raid the general fund to start fixing some roads but doesn’t want any reforms to the agency that, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling this month, is once again controlled completely by legislators’ unaccountable, horse-trading appointees. Meantime, House leaders note, another group of senators wants reform but no funding. I suspect as much, but the Senate has voted overwhelmingly for both the money and the reform, so there’s no way to prove that some senators are now secretly fighting to block proposals they voted to advance.

Meantime, House leaders sound like they have dug in their heels over their plan to let the House play a role in confirming the governor’s appointees to a reformed Transportation Commission. Or perhaps you could say the Senate has dug in its heels.

READ MY COLUMN: DOT can work fine with a board, as long as governor appoints it

Senators point to history, in our state and the nation, to argue that advice and consent of executive appointments is a Senate duty, not a legislative duty. House members note that both the House and Senate confirm the governor’s appointments to the Ethics Commission. They also argue that because senators and representatives now jointly appoint the commissioners, it’s only right for them to retain some small role after appointment power is transferred to the governor.

I can see the logic to both arguments. I can also see this: This is far too insignificant a matter to stop us from finally ending South Carolina’s distinction as one of only two states where legislators make more than an occasional appointment to the state transportation agency. There is absolutely no excuse for the Legislature to adjourn without working this out.

For that matter, there is absolutely no excuse for the Legislature to adjourn without passing all three of these reforms.

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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