The South Carolina House on Tuesday gave its approval to a bill which tries to strengthen the state’s ethics laws.
Legislators voted 113-7 to pass the bill, which must receive another procedural vote on Wednesday before heading to the Senate. Under the chamber’s rules, the bill must clear the House by Wednesday if it has any chance of becoming law this year.
“While our ethics laws have been touted as the toughest in the nation, they were written before e-mail, the Internet, PayPal, cell phones, and even ATM machines,” House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister said in a press release shortly after the vote.Bannister had faced the brunt of the criticism after watchdog groups slammed what they believed to be serious shortcomings in the House’s original ethics proposal. “What they put out last week was a disaster,” Common Cause of South Carolina’s director John Crangle said.
But most lawmakers agreed to a last-minute compromise proposed by Bannister and others last week after discussions between the sides.
That included one of its biggest critics last week. “I think this (compromise) is what was possible,” Rep. James Smith (D-Columbia) told reporters after he voted in favor of the legislation. “We didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the possible.”
Smith called it “the most significant ethics reform bill I’ve seen in 20 years.”
The bill would require politicians at both the state and local level to disclose all sources of income (though they would not have to list the actual dollar amount). Currently, public officials are only required to disclose income from government entities and private groups that use a lobbyist. The bill would also eliminate a 15-day “blackout” period between a required campaign disclosure date and Election Day.
The compromise would also once again make most ethics violations a criminal offense. The original bill would have decriminalized all but the most serious violations. The new version also creates a 16-member, joint House and Senate ethics committee (currently each has a separate panel). The original proposal had called for an independent ethics enforcement commission. While the independent panel was strongly supported by Gov. Nikki Haley, House leaders claimed it would have been unconstitutional.
The seven “no” votes Tuesday were all Republicans, most of whom were not happy that the bill would create a “public integrity unit” made up of the State Law Enforcement Division, SC Attorney General’s Office, Inspector General’s Office, Ethics Commission, and the state Department of Revenue. Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens) said he believed that was growing government.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s office released a brief statement from her spokesman after the vote. “This bill represents the most important reform to our ethics code in more than two decades, and the governor appreciates the House making sure it passed before tomorrow’s deadline,” Rob Godfrey said.
However, he added that Haley still wanted senators to create the independent commission, which her own ethics study panel recommended earlier this year. The governor also wants more income disclosure, Godfrey said. “She has long said that this year is the year for true ethics reform in South Carolina, and today puts us well on our way to having a government that our citizens can be proud of.”
The bill would also require lobbyists to register with the state before they could lobby local governments. It also expands when lawmakers would have to recuse themselves from voting on legislation due to a conflict of interest.
The final bill also bars so-called “Leadership PACs” from contributing to public officials (although they will still be able to run independent ads and make other expenses). However, independent PACs that are not directly tied to an elected official would still be able to contribute to candidates.