The South Carolina House of Representatives has passed the latest version of an ethics reform bill in a late effort to get it into law before the session ends.
The proposal will head back to the Senate after passing unanimously on Wednesday. Gov. Nikki Haley responded positively to the vote, but said she would like to see further changes.
The House version would create an independent commission whose 12 members would be chosen by each branch of government and would investigate all ethics allegations. The 12 members could not be public officials or their family members, have donate to a political campaign, or served as a lobbyist within four years. Members of the House would vote on two members, the Senate two more, while the governor and state Supreme Court would each select four commissioners.
“This is a massive and sweeping piece of legislation with many moving parts. As we have studied the issue and heard from the public over the last two years, we have made many changes,” House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said in a statement after the vote. “This is a solid bill that represents a strong update to our Ethics laws.”
The House decided Wednesday to not allow legislators or active judges to serve on the proposed Commission on Ethics Enforcement and Disclosure. Gov. Nikki Haley had previously said such an arrangement would be a deal-breaker. After Wednesday’s vote, the governor’s spokesman Doug Mayer said the amended bill was a response to Haley’s top concerns.
“While the House bill still contains some problems that we hope will be addressed in conference, this represents real progress for the people of South Carolina,” Mayer said in an email. “Now it’s time for the Senate to join the House in making sure legislators are no longer investigating themselves or keeping their income secret.”
Under the proposal, the new independent commission would investigate ethics complaints against all state and local government officials or candidates. If the commission finds probable cause that a violation occurred, it would turn over the findings to the relevant entity for further action (the House or Senate ethics committees for legislators, Judicial Standards Commission for judges, and State Ethics Commission for executive branch or local government officials). The findings would also become public in a report.
The legislation would also require lawmakers to reveal all their sources of income, but not the amounts. Currently, public officials only have to disclose income they receive from government pay or contracts. They would also need to disclose income received by immediate family members. The bill would also require lawmakers to keep campaign financial records for at least four years.
The governor’s spokesman did not give specifics about the bill’s “problems” that the Governor’s Office wants to address. But a late amendment filed by State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, would weaken the governor’s control over the State Ethics Commission. Stavrinakis said he believed the commission, which determines violations or fines against members of the executive branch, currently has a conflict of interest in that all its members are chosen by the governor.
“There’s been plenty of criticism of (the legislature) and how we govern ourselves and what the system’s going to look like for us,” he said during floor debate. “But we need to shine that same light all over the government in South Carolina.”
The House voted 66-46 in favor of the amendment that would have Ethics Commission members be chosen by all nine of the state’s constitutional officers.