Cindi Ross Scoppe

Naive optimism crashes into legislative reality

tglantz@thestate.com

WEDNESDAY was the worst. Up until Wednesday, I was holding on to this naive optimism that this time things would be different. Think Charlie Brown charging toward the football.

This time, I told myself, the Legislature would actually reform the unaccountable, parochial Transportation Commission, and put the governor in charge. Not like back in 2007, when lawmakers pretended to do that but really didn’t, and Mark Sanford, for probably the only time in his life, decided to take a barely partial win and declare victory.

NEWS COVERAGE: What SC lawmakers did — or didn’t do — for you

This time, I had honestly come to believe that the Legislature was actually going to pass a real ethics-reform bill. Not one that made legislators tell us where they got their money and made special interests tell us where they got their money to influence our votes, but at least one that would let an independent panel investigate legislators’ ethics.

Smaller but still important reforms seemed possible — dare I say likely? — in other areas as well: a bill to make police obey the law that requires them to turn over dash-cam video after shootings, a bill to make local governments start obeying the open-records law, a bill to make cities and counties start obeying the constitution by holding elections every time there’s supposed to be an election.

Oh yes, I was in full dum spiro spero mode.

Then I read the roads bill that the Senate had passed Tuesday night and that the House was about to swallow rather than giving up all that road-repair money it included. And oh was it a masterwork. By which I mean a masterwork in sabotage. Very cleverly crafted to look, to the casual reader, as though the governor would be in charge — when in fact she might very well have less control than governors have had since the faux reform of 2007. (It is so bad that it merits its own column, which you can read on Tuesday.)

Yes, that’s bad, I told myself, but we still have ethics.

Then Sen. Gerald Malloy decided to sabotage what looked to the optimistically naive like an agreement between House and Senate negotiators on the ethics bill. The previous day, Senate negotiators had agreed to a key House demand: that all the details and documents of independent investigations into legislators’ ethics be made public once investigators decide there is probable cause that the law has been violated.

But Sen. Malloy had missed the Tuesday meeting, and now he would have none of this transparency stuff. He insisted on maintaining the original Senate plan: It should be up to the House or Senate Ethics committee to decide whether there was probable cause, he said, and thus to decide when the investigation is made public. Or not.

Now, the governor and the League of Women Voters signaled that they could live with this, but for the life of me, I cannot see how this could be called independent oversight or even, in any meaningful way, independent investigations. This isn’t giving the public any reason to believe that legislators are no longer sweeping ethics violations under the rug. As the League puts it, reform has to mean that enforcement is either completely independent or completely transparent.

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

The coup de grace did not involve legislation, but it could have deep repercussions in the Legislature, and it told us something deeply troubling that I had very nearly convinced myself was no longer the case. Gov. Nikki Haley, who was out campaigning against Republican senators while reformers were frantically trying to salvage what she claimed were her priorities, added a new and unexpected target on Wednesday: Sen. Wes Hayes.

I could understand why she went after Hugh Leatherman and Luke Rankin; they had been working to undermine those priorities and, at least in Mr. Leatherman’s case, to gig her whenever he could. But Wes Hayes? Mr. Ethics? Really? His sin, apparently, was supporting a bond bill for college construction and voting to raise the gas tax — before he backed off and voted to pay for road repairs by raiding the state’s general fund. Something several Senate Republicans and most House Republicans also did.

So much for the idea that the governor had become less of a political opportunist and more of a governor. So much for the idea that she cares about ethics reform or reforming the Transportation Commission or, really, anything other than slashing taxes.

(Note to self: Be sure to check with the folks at the S.C. Chamber of Commerce to see if they’ll be coming to the aid of Mr. Hayes, one of their consistent supporters. After all, as much as our state would be improved by the absence of their targeted Sen. Lee Bright, it would suffer immensely more from the absence of Sen. Hayes.)

The good thing about getting so thoroughly disabused of my naivety on Wednesday is that I wasn’t at all disappointed on Thursday when the Legislature left town without passing the dash-cam bill or the public-records bill or the election bill (which the Senate also sabotaged), or when the ethics reforms officially fell apart.

OK, so maybe I was disappointed. But not surprised.

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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