June 19, 2013

Editorial | Let your voice be heard on legislative ethics reform

The state Senate signaled Wednesday that it is somewhat apologetic to the public for failing to act on ethics reform that many viewed as a top priority for action when the session began in January.

The state Senate signaled Wednesday that it is somewhat apologetic to the public for failing to act on ethics reform that many viewed as a top priority for action when the session began in January.

In the last few minutes before the Senate left (although lawmakers will be back for a short time next week to deal with any budget vetoes), a select committee on ethics was named by Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, the president pro tempore and the leader of the body.

Courson named three Republicans and three Democrats to continue to study the issue over the summer and fall, including holding public meetings across the state to hear from citizens about ethics reform.

One of the members named to the select committee is Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach. That is fitting because Rankin chairs the Senate Ethics Committee. It is also fitting because earlier this month, in the last few days of the regular legislative session, Rankin took to the floor of the Senate to discuss why the ethics bill passed by the House was possibly ill-thought-out and unwarranted.

Besides, Rankin said several times, he had not heard that his voters in Senate District 33 and in Horry County are concerned about ethics reform. It is not something they are interested in, he said. Rather, voters in his district are concerned about the economy and education.

Perhaps so. But if there are people in Rankin's district, or elsewhere in the region, who are concerned about ethics reform, he has now invited you to say so.

During his remarks on the Senate floor, Rankin made some pertinent points. The resignation of longtime Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, after being exposed by the Ethics Committee for misuse of campaign funds, shows the system works, Rankin said. Likewise the public reprimand and fine levied on Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion, for mishandling campaign funds shows the system works in the Senate, Rankin said.

The senator went on to say that the problems with ethics are in the House, where Speaker Bobby Harrell is accused of using campaign funds to pay the costs of flying his personal plane to legislative sessions. The House Ethics committee also bungled charges against Gov. Nikki Haley stemming from her time as a representative, Rankin said. The governor was acquitted but some lawmakers said the accusations were not handled properly or promptly, causing the issues to be taken up twice.

Why should the Senate be punished because the House system is not working, Rankin asked.

The state Constitution assigns exclusively to the House and Senate the duty of policing their own membership, and on June 12 the state Supreme Court reaffirmed that responsibility in a case brought by GOP activist John Rainey. Rainey sought to have Haley charged with ethics violations related to her jobs as a consultant to a hospital and a major state contractor while he was a House member.

Those are the charges that the House Ethics Committee ruled were unfounded. Rainey had made those complaints as well and was not satisfied with the Ethics Committee's actions.

What the court did not address, nor did Rankin in his remarks on the Senate floor, is whether some other agency could be assigned to share in oversight of the ethics of legislators. That's a change that should be included in any final ethics reform package, says John Crangle, director of S.C. Common Cause and others in the ethics reform support column.

Without that change, it's a fox guarding the henhouse situation in the Capitol. Even if the Senate does catch all its violators, the appearance of evil is often as irksome as the evil itself. Most proposals are to have the State Ethics Commission, which monitors campaigns of all other officeholders, also oversee lawmakers. The staff would investigate complaints but would not have the power to act on them, and would make recommendations to the House and Senate Ethics Committees. Those panels would still be responsible for taking any action against their members.

This seems like a reasonable measure and it should be given full consideration, though the State Ethics Commission would have to be allocated more money to handle the task.

There are still many in the Legislature who do not want to fully disclose the source of their income, and that issue is not settled. Nor do they want to give up their right to keep certain documents secret that other government agencies are required to disclose, but there is no reason that has to be part of an ethics reform bill.

Voters who are interested in this subject should take Rankin up on his challenge and share their views with him. His Senate office phone number is (803) 212-6410; the phone at his Conway office is 248-2405. The legislative information system refuses to list email addresses; however, you may email Rankin by going to scstatehouse.gov, scrolling down to Senators under Senate in the middle left side of the page, then clicking on Rankin's name. From that page you may click on “Send message to Senator Rankin.''

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