COLUMBIA, S.C. — Bills aimed at limiting and clarifying how South Carolina's officeholders can spend campaign donations advanced Thursday in the House, as the Senate approved an ethics bill requiring candidates and incumbents to disclose where they get their money.
The measures sent to the House Judiciary Committee would no longer allow people to accept cash donations, use cash to pay expenses, or pay ethics fines from campaign coffers. One bill attempts to better define what qualifies as an allowed campaign expense, while another creates a 30-day window to correct filing mistakes.
Sponsoring Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, called his six bills a good start toward clearing up confusion over campaign disclosure laws that can get people in trouble. He plans to introduce more next year.
Rep. Tommy Pope said he believes Finlay's bills do a better job of clearing up gray areas than the measure legislators have touted as broad reform.
That bill resulted from calls to strengthen the state's ethics laws amid mounting allegations of lawmakers' misconduct. Though legislators have called ethics reform a top priority since 2012, progress has been slow. As it stands, the bill the Senate returned to the House later Thursday by a vote of 33-2 doesn't touch many of the issues surrounding lawmakers' cases.
"These small steps are actually more meaningful," said Pope, R-York. "We'll do more good in these small steps, I truly believe, than the things we roll out in the name of a big ethics bill."
Calls for reform intensified after the House Ethics Committee twice cleared Gov. Nikki Haley in 2012 of allegations she lobbied for two former employers while in the House — citing vagueness of the law — and that she failed to report her consulting job for an engineering firm on filings. Committee members agreed the law didn't require it.
The larger ethics bill does address that, by requiring officeholders to disclose all sources of income, public and private, though not the amounts. Haley criticized the Senate for leaving intact the current system of House and Senate ethics committees overseeing the campaign filings of their own members. She called on the House to put independent investigations back in the bill.
It "wasn't ethics reform. It's an income disclosure bill, and while that's a positive step forward, it's really only a half-step," said her spokesman Doug Mayer.
Her Democratic opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, was more blunt, calling the bill "pretty close to nothing."
Five of Finlay's bills advanced to House Judiciary with unanimous approval. A complete ban of cash donations moved up despite a 2-2 tie. Currently, candidates can accept cash of $25 or less.
Cash contributions open the door for abuse, and are problematic to correctly report, so it's best to do away with it, Finlay said.
But Rep. Walt McLeod argued outlawing modest cash contributions would deprive some people the chance of participating in their government, especially those who don't have a checking account.
"Let's allow working people, unemployed people to feel like they're participating in government," said McLeod, D-Little Mountain.
The subcommittee had no problem with eliminating cash payments. State law currently allows using cash for expenses costing $25 or less and withdrawing up to $100 at a time from a campaign account to replenish that petty cash fund. Another bill specifies that a campaign can pay expenses through online transfers, or by credit or debit cards issued for the campaign account, rather than technically being limited to checks. That provides a better alternative to legislators reimbursing themselves after paying by personal credit card.
Finlay said his bill creating a 30-day window to fix a mistake can fairly dispose of technical errors and ease fears of a small mistake becoming a big, expensive problem.
"People are going to make mistakes. Filings are complicated. They can either self-correct or, if they don't, then we have a real reason to pursue," he said.
Legislators still under scrutiny include Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.
Much of Mitchell's case, still before the House Ethics Committee, involves his use of cash. He contends he kept poor records and didn't properly pay his bills but did not use his campaign account for personal benefit.
Harrell's case is before the grand jury, after critics bypassed the committee process and took their complaint to the attorney general, arguing House members couldn't handle it impartially. Questions include whether he properly reimbursed himself. He contends he did nothing wrong.