The ethics reforms that the Senate passed on Wednesday are far from perfect.
They are not even sufficient to address the problems that we have witnessed with Bobby Harrell. And Mark Sanford. And Ken Ard. And Robert Ford. And Jake Knotts. And yes, with Nikki Haley. Or the additional problems noted in a national report that found South Carolina was more susceptible to corruption than all but five states.
But reread that first sentence, and digest its essence: The Senate passed ethics reforms on Wednesday. Actual reforms. As in: improvements to our current state law.
We’ve been waiting how long for this? Nearly four years, actually — unless you believe that what the Senate passed back during the Harrell era was a serious effort, and not just a carefully choreographed pas de deux in which the House and Senate each passed different reforms knowing full well that the other body would reject them. Even if you think the 2013 and 2014 efforts were sincere, we’ve still been waiting on the Senate since the House passed serious reforms at the start of the 2015 legislative session.
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Considered in that context, the ethics reforms that the Senate passed on Wednesday are monumental:
▪ Under H.3184, legislators will no longer police their own compliance with the ethics and campaign finance law. Instead, complaints will be investigated by an independent Ethics Commission, which also can initiate investigations on its own. The Senate never before agreed to even a tortured version of this.
Yes, legislators will appoint half the members of the Ethics Commission, but someone has to appoint them, and how is this more worrisome than the governor appointing half (currently all) the members of the commission charged with investigating her? Significantly, the commissioners will not be legislators, or people who have recently been legislators, or relatives of legislators.
Yes, the House and Senate Ethics committees will still decide whether legislators are guilty or innocent, but the Ethics Commission’s findings will be public, any hearings will be held in public, and the committees’ decisions will be public. So if legislators want to ignore their colleagues’ violations, they’ll have to do it in full public view. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this change.
▪ Under H.3186, legislators and other public officials will have to tell us the source of nearly all of their income, and their business associates and immediate family members will have to tell us the source of much of their income.
No, officials won’t have to report the amount of money they receive, even in broad ranges, and family members won’t have to tell us about enough of their income. I’m not even sure the Senate language is clear enough to reverse the bizarre interpretation by the Ethics Commission that money from contracts doesn’t count as “income.” (Note to the House: You might want to add language to the bill that will give a conference committee the flexibility it needs to get this one right.)
But this is a dramatic improvement over the current law, which requires officials to report only the income they receive from government, lobbyists, lobbyists’ employers and some government contractors.
Recall that the reason we have an ethics law is to reduce the chance that lawmakers will put their personal interests or the interests of their employers, business partners or campaign donors ahead of ours. A fuller income-disclosure law increases the chance that legislators will be called on to explain their relationships, and that decreases the chance that they’ll engage in inappropriate relationships.
The other steps to minimize self-dealing are outlawing behaviors that most clearly put lawmakers’ interests ahead of ours, and creating a system to deter, detect and punish violations.
The Senate fell far short of the mark on these: It didn’t broaden recusal requirements to include debate and committee and procedural votes. It didn’t increase penalties for violating the ethics and campaign finance law. It didn’t provide other incentives to encourage compliance, such as mandatory random audits of campaign reports. It didn’t give ethics investigators additional tools to uncover violations. Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he was afraid he would freak out already-reluctant senators if he tried any of that.
Those are reforms the House needs to consider before it sends the bills to conference committee — and reforms we need to keep on the “to-do” list if this year’s legislation doesn’t ultimately address them.
The biggest shortcoming of the Senate’s ethics package has nothing to do with the fine points of income disclosure or enforcement. It’s what’s not addressed at all: South Carolina’s dark-money plague. Senate reformers simply could not get the votes to make special interests tell us where they get the money they spend to influence our votes.
But that doesn’t make the reforms the Senate did pass any less valuable. It just means the Senate needs to pass a dark-money bill, if not this year then next year. First, though, we need to get the income-disclosure and oversight reforms to the governor’s desk. That’s still no sure thing, but we are closer now than we have been since this effort started back in 2012.
Scoppe is a columnist for The State in Columbia. She can be reached at email@example.com.