Hold lawmakers' feet to fire on ethics reform

info@islandpacket.comApril 21, 2013 

With a critical deadline looming, we're about to find out whether lawmakers are serious about ethics reform -- the kind that doesn't just look good on paper but actually changes behavior.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee fleshed out a skeletal bill that is a mix of substantive changes and some steps backward.

Unfortunately, the bill was drafted in secret and only made available to the public after it was debated and voted on in committee. It made it impossible for legislative watchdogs to weigh in on its provisions at a hearing Tuesday, the only time they could have had a say. That's not the way to handle legislation aimed at "transparency."

Some of its encouraging points:

  • Eliminating the House and Senate ethics committees and the existing state Election Commission and replacing them with a new state entity run by a 12-member commission appointed by the House, Senate and governor.

  • Requiring lawmakers to report all sources of private income and the sources and amounts of income from public entities.

  • Abolishing political action committees run by lawmakers that get around campaign contribution limits.

  • Formalizing in law the Public Integrity Unit, a partnership among the attorney general, Revenue Department, State Law Enforcement Division, Ethics Commission and inspector general to investigate criminal violations of ethics laws.

  • Prohibiting the use of campaign funds to pay fines for violations of ethics rules.

  • Tightening lobbyist reporting requirements.

  • Some of its discouraging points:

  • Decriminalizing most of the ethics law. Right now, violating any provision of the ethics law is at least a misdemeanor. The proposed bill does away with that, The (Columbia) State reports, except for three instances -- bribery, releasing confidential information for financial gain and using a public office to make money. That means it would no longer be a crime to use campaign money for personal use.

  • Some lawmakers say that wasn't what they intended and vow to change it, but their confusion on a very important point illustrates why a full vetting of the bill would have been better.

    Under the proposal, complaints filed against a public official would be turned over to a three-member subcommittee. The subcommittee would present its findings to the full commission, which would determine whether there was enough evidence to move ahead. It could issue a confidential letter of reprimand for technical or small violations. If it finds the complaint is "substantive," all records become public. Any hearings before the commission would be public.

    But we're a long way from the finish line on this or any other bills on ethics reform, particularly if House and Senate versions of ethics reform differ and the bills goes to a conference committee.

    Another hurdle is an upcoming "crossover" deadline. Bills that don't move from one chamber to the other by May 1 require a two-thirds vote to be taken up, reducing the likelihood they'll get passed this legislative session.

    The voting public should keep up pressure on lawmakers not to go weak in the knees on reform.

    That includes making lawmakers subject to the state Freedom of Information Act. South Carolina is the only state that exempts its lawmakers from open-records requirements.

    That issue has continued to trouble a bill that would improve the law on other fronts, including shortening the time a government entity has to respond to a request; limiting charges to fulfill a request; and making it easier to appeal a refusal to release information.

    There's no excuse for not getting these changes into law, and that includes eliminating lawmakers' exemption from disclosure. Other public officials function under these rules, and so can lawmakers. Tell them you expect them to get the job done.

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