Some key lawmakers, the state attorney general and the S.C. Ethics Commission are working this summer on a plan to strengthen the state's ethics law.
But unless they have the legislative muscle to move mountains, we don't expect much from the exercise.
The kind of change needed to bring true accountability and openness is not likely to be achieved if past efforts at "reform" of various kinds are an indication.
Events of recent months, particularly the ethics complaint filed against Gov. Nikki Haley over her actions as a state representative, have highlighted how weak the law is. It fails to make sure the public knows who might be influencing a lawmaker and where potential conflicts of interest lie. It leaves it to lawmakers to police their own actions. It exempts lawmakers from the disclosure requirements all other public officials are subject to.
Substantive change would:
The group also is looking at the definition of "committee" under state law. A 2010 federal ruling declared the state's definition unconstitutional resulting in unlimited fundraising for political groups that don't have to disclose where the money comes from. And it is looking at strengthening the investigative powers of the Ethics Commission, perhaps by allowing the state attorney general to lend investigators to the commission.
More substantive is a proposal to require public officials to disclose who employs them. Right now, officials must report only income earned from any government source, either paid to the official or a member of his or her immediate family, as well as compensation from any business or individual if that business or individual does business with a government agency.
And even within that, we see attempts to skirt transparency. Haley's lawyers said she wasn't required to report consulting money from an engineering firm because the firm didn't do business with the House, only with some state agencies. Given the influence lawmakers wield with agencies whose budgets depend on those same lawmakers, that reasoning is unsettling at best.
An opportunity exists for real reform if lawmakers will grasp it.