S.C. lawmakers and other public officials don't have to disclose who pays them -- information that can shed light on conflicts of interest and affect the votes they cast.
Political action groups in the state can launch attack ads without disclosing who they are or their agendas, making it difficult for voters to figure out what's going on.
And weak open-records laws mean the public and media cannot always get basic information from government, including details about how their tax money is spent.
While legislation is pending in the Statehouse to update and strengthen South Carolina's ethics laws to make government more accountable and transparent, it has little chance of passing this year and becoming law.
That's according to JoAnne Day, vice president for issues and action for the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, who gave an update Wednesday to members of the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area on legislation that would address many of the ethics problems that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge.
"I'm always optimistic initially, and then I hang around the Statehouse," Day said. "A lot of (whether the bills will pass) will depend on public outcry."
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said Wednesday by phone he doubts his bill to strengthen ethics laws will make it to the governor's desk this year. If his bill were to pass, it would mark the first overhaul of the state's ethics laws since 1991 when Operation Lost Trust, an FBI sting, snared more than two dozen S.C. lawmakers, lobbyists and others in one of the largest legislative public-corruption scandals in U.S. history.
Four study groups, including one formed by Gov. Nikki Haley, offered recommendations this legislation session. Those recommendations have been included in several bills now pending in various House and Senate committees.
The most comprehensive legislation, which came out of a committee headed by Hayes, would, among other things:
- Require political action committees to disclose their financial donors and their expenditures to prevent anonymous attack ads. Hayes and Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, were on the receiving end of such attacks last year.
- Ban leadership political action committees. These groups can bypass limits on donations to candidates, making it impossible to trace donations back to their original sources. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, was accused of having a leadership PAC last year that doled out big money to some like-minded House Republicans. Harrell, who is no longer associated with the PAC, is currently being investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division for possible ethics violations related to his campaign account.
- Require candidates and lawmakers to disclose their employers and other personal financial information. That became an issue last year after Haley was cleared of wrongdoing. A committee reaffirmed state law that she was not required to tell anyone that as an S.C. House member she had a consulting contract with a Midlands engineering firm that did millions of dollars worth of work for the state.
"I think we've got a good chance of getting a bill through the Senate this year but probably not the House," Hayes said, adding he will work to get it through both bodies before the end of next year. "At the beginning of the year, I thought for sure we (had the political will) to get it done. But attention spans are limited over here. As the year goes on, the issues of the day tend to get more attention, like gun control."
League members say they're disappointed, but not surprised that ethics reforms haven't gotten more traction this year. They have their fingers crossed for next year.
"Legislators protect themselves, so it's no surprise it's not moving quickly," said Patricia Goodman who attended Wednesday's league event in Bluffton. "But this would be great for the public."
Follow reporter Gina Smith at twitter.com/GinaNSmith.