HOUSE MEMBERS understandably feel burned by the Senate over ethics and reform of the state Transportation Commission and probably a lot of other legislation that I’m not thinking about. But there is still a chance of salvaging some good legislation — if they’ll swallow hard and try again.
Three important reform bills are in position to be passed when lawmakers return to Columbia this week to take up Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget vetoes: one to make police obey the state’s open-records law, one to let an independent panel investigate legislators’ compliance with the ethics law and one to make legislators tell us where they get their income. I list them in descending order of likelihood for making it to the governor’s desk.
Scoppe: Naive optimism crashes into legislative reality News story: SC ethics reforms stalled after 4 years of debate
The police bill should actually be easy.
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State law already requires police to release dash-cam video except under limited circumstances. But too often when the video involves police shootings, they refuse, for months or even years, citing an exemption that doesn’t say what they say it says. So in April, the Senate passed S.913, which requires police to release the video unless they can convince a judge that doing so would impede a criminal investigation or cause a very limited number of other problems.
House members say they support the bill. But after a single senator prevented a vote on a House bill to enforce other requirements of the state’s open records law, the House Judiciary Committee replaced the language from the dash-cam bill with language in the larger open-records bill and passed that, hoping to end up with a bill that contained all of the provisions from both bills.
Senate negotiators absolutely refused to consider that, and senators who support both of the measures are convinced — correctly I believe — that there’s no way they can get the Senate to go along.
Scoppe: When do you believe police, and when do you believe critics?
So the House has this choice: It can continue to insist on the two-bills-for-one approach, and we can all end up with nothing, or it can back down and accept the dash-cam-only bill. It should back down and accept the dash-cam-only approach. One good open-records bill is much better than none.
Similarly, the House should abandon its attempts to make special interests tell us where they get their money when they spend it to try to influence our votes. Last month, the House attached that measure to a House-passed bill that the Senate had just passed to make legislators tell us the sources of their income.
We desperately need the so-called dark-money law, but as with the open-records bill, it is clear that the Senate will not go along with it. Abandoning that appendage won’t guarantee that we’ll get the income-source disclosure law — there are huge differences between the House and Senate versions — but it at least makes it theoretically possible.
There’s not such a simple solution to the impasse over allowing an independent entity to investigate legislators’ compliance with the ethics act — but the two bodies aren’t as far apart on that as on the income-source disclosure bill. Indeed, Gov. Nikki Haley and the League of Women voters have signaled that they could accept either version of the bill.
At issue is what happens after the independent entity decides there’s probable cause that a legislator has violated the law. Under the House bill, all the results of the independent investigation would be made public, and the House or Senate Ethics committee would determine whether the legislator violated the law and, if so, what the punishment should be.
How to make sure SC legislators really tell us who pays them
But some senators fret that the independent panel might not really understand the ethics law that well, and that releasing that information could unfairly harm an innocent legislator. So the Senate wants to give the legislative ethics committee what is essentially an opportunity to talk (some would say bully) the independent panel into changing its mind.
If that works, then the complaint would go away without the public ever seeing more than the sketchiest of details. If the independent panel stood its ground, at that point, all the results of the independent investigation would be made made public, and the House or Senate Ethics committee would determine whether the legislator violated the law.
The House approach is absolutely how this needs to work, but it’s premature to say there can be no more compromise. What’s crucial here is that the public see all the information gathered by the independent investigation.
So, for instance, we could let the legislative committee negotiate with the independent panel if it wants to — as long as the public gets the details regardless of the outcome of that negotiation.
That’s not a great compromise, and it might not be one the Senate would accept, but it’s a possibility. There are probably other ways to work this out as well, and legislators need to try to find them.
We’ve come too far to let this die without one more effort.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.