September 16, 2014

SC Senate postpones vote on ethics reform

Image: SCETV

State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, delayed a vote on the bill Thursday.

South Carolina senators have postponed a vote on an ethics reform compromise for two weeks after a few opponents prevented it from coming up to a vote Thursday, despite a last-minute appeal from Gov. Nikki Haley.

Opponents led by State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, said they needed more time to review the massive legislation. An updated compromise reached by a conference committee on Wednesday was not posted to a public website during the vote, as such bills typically are.

“When your constituents just want the time to understand what’s in a bill, I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” Bright said.

The Senate’s regular session ended at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday. When it became apparent that Bright’s filibuster would run out the clock, senators agreed return for a special session on June 17.

Thursday’s debate returned to the issue of whether or not a new independent ethics commission should have the power to investigate ethics complaints against legislators. Senators have long opposed such an idea, saying it infringes on the state constitution’s requirement that the House and Senate enforce their own rules. Gov. Haley has strongly pushed for an independent commission, saying it avoids potential conflicts of interest that lawmakers could have investigating their peers.

But while House leaders agreed with her, that was a non-starter in the Senate. “The Senate has done its business fairly and appropriately,” Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry said on the Senate floor during Thursday’s debate.

The House passed the compromise earlier in the day with a 104-12 vote. The vote followed over an hour of debate between the bill’s supporters and some of Haley’s closest allies who said the measure does not go far enough. However, most members seemed to echo Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Belton, who wanted independent investigations but decided to support the compromise anyway. “What this really boils down to is either taking a piece of the pie or none of the pie,” he said during the debate.

Bedingfield pointed to new requirements that lawmakers disclose their sources of income (but not the amount),

Bright held up a vote, saying he wanted to review proposed changes to third-party group campaign ads. According to Senate leaders, the bill would require those noncandidate campaign committees to disclose their financial records. Supporters say they want to know who are behind anonymous attack ads by such groups. But Bright said he had concerns that the requirement could intimidate political opponents who are nervous about powerful politicians knowing their names.

“I believe that when we place these things in the path, we intimidate people from using their right of free speech,” he said.

Recognizing that Bright would not end his filibuster on Thursday, senators eventually agreed to push a vote back to June 17. Gov. Haley took to Twitter moments before that decision in a last-minute push. “(T)here seems to be some confusion as to whether I support (the bill),” Haley tweeted. “Yes, I do. So any senators using me as an excuse should sit down, pass the bill, and I will sign it”

But House Democrats criticized Haley for pushing ethics reform, giving previous ethics violations committed by her campaign in 2010. “As we move forward and look at ethics we need to stop taking examples from someone who, if we used her as an example, we would all probably be in jail,” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said on the House floor.