Saying Governor Nikki Haley’s proposed ethics reform does not go far enough, several conservative groups have made what they call an “unusual alliance” with environmentalists to push for a major overhaul of the state’s ethics laws.
“I think we’ve been too soft in talking about ethics. What we’re really talking about is corruption,” South Carolina Policy Council President Ashley Landess told reporters in a Wednesday briefing, “That’s what’s been happening in our state for a long time. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s good or right.”
The Policy Council, a prominent conservative think-tank, has allied itself with various Tea Party organizations and the Coastal Conservation League in a nonpartisan effort to put visible public pressure on lawmakers.
The groups released an eight-point plan they claim would help clean South Carolina’s “culture of secret deal-making, cronyism, and self-enrichment at the heart of state government.” The proposed changes include requiring lawmakers to disclose where they earn all of their income (right now, they are only required to disclose any income from government entities or groups that have a lobbyist principal) and ending the General Assembly’s ability to police its own members over ethics violations.
The plan also seeks to restructure state government by diluting some of the legislature’s power and shifting it to the executive branch. The Policy Council specifically called for the governor to be given the power to nominate judges for approval by the legislature. Right now, legislators appoint state judges based on the recommendations of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which is itself appointed by legislative leaders.
Coastal Conservation League executive director Dana Beach said too much power is wielded by a small group of legislators. In his own example, his organization has battled the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SCTIB) — an entity that borrows and leverages funds to pay for major infrastructure projects– over the expansion of Interstate 526 in Charleston.
Over the course of its history, SCTIB’s board of directors has dispersed over half of its $4.2 billion in expenditures to two counties (Charleston and Horry). Beach said Charleston County is home to House Speaker Bobby Harrell and former Senate President Glenn McConnell, who appointed four of the board’s seven members. SCTIB chairman Donald Leonard is from Horry County. The third-highest total is Florence County, home to fellow board member Sen. Hugh Leatherman.
“Our tax money, $125 million each year… has been spent in the counties where the officials live who appoint the members,” Beach said. He adds that 36 counties have never received any funds for their own infrastructure projects since the Infrastructure Bank’s creation in 1997. Bank directors have previously said the coastal counties receive a disproportionate share because their local sales taxes help cover some of the cost.
“In South Carolina, strange things happen,” Beach said, “We end up not having politicians develop the courage to stand up and really hold people accountable for doing the wrong thing.”
The proposal also calls for the cost of economic incentives packages — the tax breaks and credits given to companies that expand or relocate in South Carolina– to be made public. State Department of Commerce officials have long opposed that idea, saying it would make businesses nervous to build in South Carolina. Lawmakers, eager to land corporations in their own districts, have been reluctant to press the point, Landess said.
The groups also called for a shorter legislative session than South Carolina’s current six-months-per-year term, tougher open records laws (including ending the legislative exemption), and joint budget hearings that are open to public comment. The latter is already part of state law, but is rarely followed, Landess said.
The Campaign for Liberty and Operation Lost Vote, a pair of groups with ties to Tea Party activists, said public involvement is the only way for serious reform to occur.
“People are not asleep anymore,” said Campaign for Liberty state coordinator Talbert Black, “They’re paying attention to what’s going on.” He said it would take a large outcry from constituents to lead to any substantial changes, but says a roll-call voting law passed in 2011 proved it was possible.
Landess, Beach and others toured the state Wednesday. They spoke to reporters at stops in Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville.