State senators have given their approval to legislation that would require themselves and other public officials to disclose all sources of income, although not necessarily how much they receive.
The Senate voted 33-2 Thursday in favor of a bill that would require lawmakers to reveal their income sources. Current state law only requires that elected officials and candidates document any public money sources prior to each election. It would also allow public officials to be charged with a felony for improperly misusing campaign money.
The bill now heads back to the House, which passed a significantly different version of ethics reform last year.
Senate President pro tempore John Courson, R-Richland, said no law will stop unscrupulous lawmakers, but hoped the bill would help dissuade them. “What we can do… is hopefully throw up roadblocks to preclude people from violating our statutes,” he said shortly after the bill passed. “And make the penalties strong enough that, if they do, the punishment would be so severe that it would deter them from doing so.”
But two senators who opposed the measure said it was weaker than the House version. State Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, said listing income sources without a dollar amount defeats the purpose of the requirement. “Anybody that says this is a huge wave of reform across South Carolina is fooling themselves,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.
But State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said he believed showing who is paying a lawmaker is a step in the right direction. He did not think dollar amounts were needed. “I think it would have a chilling effect on people running for elected office, if you have to basically turn in your tax returns and explain how much you’re getting paid.”
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, had introduced an amendment to disclose dollar amounts. But it was defeated in a bipartisan voice vote on Wednesday. It was an unusual moment showing that the bill’s ideology did not fall along party lines. Six Republicans were recorded as supporting Sheheen’s amendment, but no fellow Democratic senators were.
Senators on Thursday also added language that would make it a felony for lawmakers to convert more than $10,000 in campaign funds to personal use. Current law bars the practice, but does not specifically list any penalties for doing it. Illegal conversions of more than $10,000 would risk a fine and up to 10 years in prison. A public official faces a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in prison for illegally converting less than $10,000.
The bill also differed from the House version by eliminating an independent committee that would have had the power to investigate legislators. Supporters had wanted to avoid the appearance of House and Senate members protecting their own.
“It was one area we were not able to resolve,” said Hayes, who supports an independent committee.
But a majority of senators, led by State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, argued the state constitution only allows the House and Senate to discipline members for non-criminal violations. Campsen said he worried a committee controlled by the executive branch would violate the separation of powers.
Like the House version, the bill would require “campaign committees” to file with the State Ethics Commission. Hayes said the requirement would force the third party groups, which are frequently accused of running anonymous attack ads, to disclose who they are. It would also ban leadership PACs.