An ethics bill that would have required South Carolina lawmakers to disclose all sources of their income, but not the amounts, has died in the state Senate. Thursday was the final day of the session before legislators adjourn for the year.
The bill’s Republican supporters did not have enough votes to end a late Thursday filibuster by a coalition Senate’s more libertarian Republicans and nearly all Democratic members, along with a few moderate GOP senators. Some opponents said the bill was too watered-down from the recommendations made by a specially-appointed panel last year — specifically that it did not create an independent panel to consider ethics allegations against legislators.
The compromise bill kept the current House and Senate ethics committees intact. Government watchdog groups like Common Cause and SC Policy Council have criticized the in-house system, arguing it creates the appearance of lawmakers protecting their own.
“It should be uncompromising when it comes to ethics,” State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort said. “The people of South Carolina deserve nothing less than what was promised to them by the leaders of this state: independent oversight (and) income disclosure.”
The vote was a huge setback for Gov. Nikki Haley, who has made ethics reform a top priority this session. Haley had previously called for lawmakers to include independent oversight in their final bill, but conceded two weeks ago she would support the compromise. She made a last-ditch appeal Thursday morning, hoping to get a partial victory on income disclosure. “We strongly believe that legislators should have to disclose who pays them,” Haley tweeted. “Citizens deserve to know. We urge the Senate to pass it.
The bill would have required elected officials and candidates in South Carolina to disclose all sources of income, but not the amount. Currently they only have to show much income they received from public sources or companies that do business with the state.
Davis was joined Thursday by Haley’s election opponent Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw. Sheheen said it was not enough to merely disclose the income source. “You’re giving the appearance that you’re providing something, but you’re really not,” he said on the Senate floor Thursday.
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, made a last-minute appeal, saying he also wants independent oversight, but that the votes are not there. “Sometimes we have to deal with what we can pass in this body,” he said. “And what we can pass is a good bill. Not a perfect bill, but a good bill.” He questioned how those who want stronger language plan to make that happen next year, since the Senate voting lines would remain the same in January.
But the bill never made it to a final vote. Democrats closed ranks and voted 26-13 with Davis and other back-bench Republicans to keep a filibuster going. Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman and several of his closest allies also voted against the measure, but did not give a reason (Leatherman opposes an independent ethics commission).
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, had started a June 5 filibuster to prevent a vote. Bright targeted language in the bill that required third-party groups to disclose who had helped pay for political ads. Bright worried the requirement would violate First Amendment rights, as it opened government critics to potential retaliation.
“This bill is more of an incumbent-protection bill,” he said. “Because we’re scared that somebody out there may come up with some money to oppose us and we won’t know who they are.”
But State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, insisted it was not a free speech infringement. “It’s no limit on free speech, when all we’re saying is you’ve got to disclose,” he said. The issue is personal for Martin, who won reelection despite attack ads from a third-party group in 2012 (Bright was also targeted by a different group).
The bill’s defeat means legislators will have to start from scratch in January, if they wish to try again.