SC ethics reform proposal faces Wednesday deadline to pass this year

abeam@thestate.comApril 25, 2013 

The S.C. General Assembly likes to regulate everything – including itself.

A bill in the House of Representatives would have changed that, replacing the House and Senate ethics committees with an independent commission of regular people to look over the shoulders of the lawmakers they elected.

But Thursday, House Republicans changed the makeup of that commission, making it an even mix of lawmakers and citizens. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, who initially advocated for a commission without lawmakers, said the changes were necessary to secure the votes needed for ethics reform to pass.

“In my opinion, it does answer the question about the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Bannister, invoking the popular metaphor used frequently to criticize the current ethics-enforcement process. “You’ve got people, who are not members now, sitting on an ethics committee making judgments about members’ conduct.”

But government watchdog groups were quick to criticize the change.

“The whole atmosphere and the way this place operates is partisan, and it’s political in a way that ethics oversight should not be,” said Lynn Teague, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. “They (legislators) want to make sure that they have some protection. We believe that the best protection everyone can have is real independence.”

This new “Joint Committee on Ethics” would operate in secret, with all documents, testimony and hearings confidential until the committee makes “a finding of probable cause” or a lawmaker under investigation asks for the investigation to be made public.

The committee also would not have any oversight from the governor or any other statewide- elected official. That change was made after the state Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down an action last year by the state’s executive branch – the State Budget and Control Board – that attempted to overrule the Legislature. The court said the budget board violated the separation-of-powers doctrine laid out in the state Constitution. The court ruling left many legislators convinced any new ethics committee could not oversee both the executive and legislative branches, and comply with the Constitution.

Instead, the State Ethics Commission would continue to regulate statewide-elected officials. Lawmakers from both parties discussed the amendment in closed meetings during lunch Thursday.

State Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, who won election in November in a campaign almost entirely devoted to the need for ethics reform, said Thursday she was comfortable with amended ethics-reform bill, which requires candidates to disclose more about their campaign contributions and disclose all of their private sources of income.

“We can always have something stronger,” she said. “But, in order to get something that will pass, I feel like this is strong.”

Lawmakers have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to send the bill to the state Senate. Anything sent to the Senate after that deadline would require a two-thirds vote just to be debated – which is unlikely.

Bannister said the House Rules Committee plans to meet Tuesday morning to set the bill on “special order,” forcing lawmakers to vote on it Tuesday. If it passes, lawmakers can give the ethics reform proposal final approval Wednesday in a procedural vote before the 5 p.m. deadline.

“I think I have the votes to get it passed, provided it doesn’t get amended to take away some of the support that is currently there,” Bannister said.

Bannister said Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, had input into the revised legislative ethics committee.

Haley issued a statement Thursday saying lawmakers “have a unique opportunity to strengthen the ethics laws of our state and restore the people’s trust in their government.”

“I have every faith that the House will seize that opportunity, and that means passing a strong bill on Tuesday,” Haley said. “Any and every effort to delay past Tuesday is an effort to kill ethics reform – and that is something South Carolina cannot afford.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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