Editorial | As session winds down, legislators need to focus on ethics, election law reforms

Legislators were racing this week to beat the May 1 deadline to get their bills passed in either the House or Senate or else leave them for dead, but with that hurdle cleared on all the year’s major initiatives, they’d do better to concentrate on June 5. That’s when the Legislature ends its two-year session.

While lawmakers have much more to show for this session than they often have by year’s end — notably dismantling the Budget and Control Board and passing significant anti-drunken driving legislation — some vital matters remain undone, most notably reforming our ethics law and repairing our election mechanism.

The election system is the most immediate problem still before lawmakers, because a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality threatens to block this year’s elections. No one argues seriously that it was constitutional for 37 of the state’s 46 counties to combine their election and voter registration offices through single-county laws, as they did; rather, many legislators in the nine counties that haven’t changed their laws simply don’t care that the others are in imminent danger, and too many legislators believe that a magic fairy will keep their unconstitutional arrangements safe.

The threat posed by our ethics law is less imminent but every bit as serious: Every day that the Legislature fails to require elected officials to tell us more about where they get their income and campaign money and continues to let legislators police their own compliance with ethics and campaign laws, public trust in our government is further eroded. And yes, it could be worse than it already is.

The good news is that the pieces are in place to allow the Legislature to save the 2014 elections, and perhaps even inject some accountability into the sort of legislatively driven system that brought us the 2012 debacle in Richland County. The House has passed a bill aimed at curing the constitutional crisis and also allowing the State Election Commission to take over county offices that fail to follow the law — a vital reform since most of those offices answer to no one today. The Senate has put the legislation on priority status, but only after stripping out the accountability provisions; of course, the current Senate version is far more likely to actually cure the constitutional crisis than the House version.

Although the bill could stand some tweaks, we could call it a good day if lawmakers agree to the Senate’s plan to combine the boards under a uniform standard and the House’s plan to let the state intervene when those combined boards can’t or won’t do their jobs.

The bad news is that ethics reform — the most promised and least supported reform of the two-year session — is still far from a certainty. It remains unclear whether anything that the House and Senate could agree on would be worth passing. Some provisions are being discussed in a House committee that would make the law much weaker. It’s hard to imagine how we’d be better off decriminalizing parts of the law and raising the standard of proof for violations that remain crimes, unless other parts of the law are strengthened exponentially more — and there are no proposals on the table to do that.

Those legislators who care about ethical government, and about preserving the public’s trust in government — and we believe they remain the majority — have to insist first that the House get moving on this legislation and second that it get moving in the right direction.