Ethics push good – it could be better

02/05/2013 12:00 AM

02/02/2013 7:52 PM

High-minded ethics is not usually considered the calling card of South Carolina politics, but last year was apparently such a bad year here ethically speaking that the issue actually seems to be getting some traction in Columbia this year.

The House is rapidly moving toward passage of a bill that would end that body’s fox-guarding-the-henhouse approach to internal ethics, in which House members enforce their own ethics rules, and Gov. Nikki Haley’s special task force delivered a report last week that offers up a handful of sensible fixes for the state’s political ethics problem.

That’s good as far as it goes.

Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t go far enough.

Most – not all, but most – of the ethics talk and ethics reform proposals fall a little short of the mark in our opinion. Some, like the House push to stop the fool’s errand of trying to police itself, carry a whiff of political posturing about them. Even if the bill did the pass the House, it seems unlikely to pass the Senate in anything like its current form, so, from a House member’s point of view, there is little danger in passing it. It’s not going anywhere anyway.

The governor’s commission is probably more grounded in reality and honest effort. Its recommendations – which not surprisingly mirror much of what the governor herself suggested as a reform program last year – represent, for the most part, a step in the right direction. But several represent only a step.

It’s good to see the state taking any steps, but we think it could probably do better.

For instance:

• The commission wants lawmakers to disclose all sources of income – public and private – and reveal the amounts received from government agencies or businesses with government contracts tied to a public official. That’s a little better than the current system, in which the only income information that must be revealed deals with money received (as salary, or through contracts) from government agencies. We’ve never thought that was all that much help since it pertains to so few candidates. Better would be to know how much each state representative and senator makes, with some description of how they make it and who pays the bills that pay for it.
• The commission recommends that legislators cease representing clients before state boards and commissions – if the lawmaker voted to appoint its members. This makes perfect sense but begs the question: How could any legislator have ever thought such representation was proper?
• The commission also recommended that alleged ethics violations against lawmakers be handed by the S.C. Ethics Commission, which would decide whether or not a case needed to go before the newly created Public Integrity Unit in the Attorney General’s office. We wholeheartedly concur on this notion, which is the target of the aforementioned House action. The current system, in which the House and Senate preside over their own ethics cases, seems unlikely to produce much justice. The current system erodes public trust.

Another recommendation delves into the murky waters of political action committees and suggests better defining same so that they will have to come under the jurisdiction of the state’s election spending reporting system. We support that, too – voters ought to be able to tell where a candidate’s campaign money is coming from – and wish the commission a big helping of good luck in getting anything really useful passed in that area.

They will need it.

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