COLUMBIA — Republicans and Democrats pointed fingers at each other on Tuesday over an ethics bill that, as the legislative calendar winds down, appears more likely it will not pass this year.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley held a news conference Tuesday morning, flanked by 14 Republican state senators, calling on the Senate to pass an ethics bill that would make lawmakers disclose who pays them and would force former lawmakers to wait at least eight years after their terms end before they can come back and get paid to lobby their former colleagues.
“If we can get a group of Senate Democrats to come our way, this passes,” she said. “This is not a partisan thing. This should be the issue of elected officials understand(ing) we work for the people and not the other way around – and we’re going to prove it by passing ethics reform this year.”
Senate Democrats bristled at the implication they are holding up an ethics bill – especially one supported by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw County democrat who plans to challenge Haley in 2014.
“She needs to be talking to the Republicans who are not supporting her,” said Senate Majority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, referring to a group of far-right Republican senators who have refused to fast track the ethics bill because they want the Senate to first vote on a bill that would put the state on record as opposing the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
Lawmakers have until June 6 to pass the ethics bill. But first, they must pass a state budget. Tuesday, state Senators began their second week of debate, with no end in sight. Lawmakers spent hours on Tuesday debating whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program. And they still have not discussed an amendment that would give tax deductions to parents who send their children to private schools – another controversial amendment that will take some time to debate.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Richland County, called Haley a hypocrite for pushing ethics reform.
“Gov. Haley is all talk when it comes (to) ethics. She may call for good government, but she repeatedly uses the state airplane for political purposes. She may call for honesty in government but she is the one who has misrepresented her earnings and failed to disclose things on her disclosure (reports),” Hutto said.
Haley was cleared twice by the House Ethics Committee for alleged ethics violations. And the attorney for the State Ethics Commission has said Haley’s use of the state plane does not violate state ethics laws.
"Senator Hutto knows full well that the governor was cleared of all the trumped up claims against her,” Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman, said. “This is another example of Senate Democrats trying to say or do anything to stop major ethics reforms.”
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill and designated as the “dean of ethics reform” by Haley, said it is important for the Legislature to pass ethics reform this year because candidates will start filing for office in March 2014.
And even after the Senate passes a budget, several bills will be competing for lawmakers attention. A bipartisan group of senators is pushing a bill that would borrow $1.3 billion to repair the state’s roads and bridges and increase a variety of fees, including the state’s gas tax, to pay for road maintenance.
Tuesday, Haley said the Senate road funding bill “is not something that I’ve even looked at. My focus has been on ethics.”
Democrats said Haley’s comments show she is out of touch with South Carolinians who would rather have their roads fixed rather than an overhaul of ethics laws.
“What people are talking to me about is roads, not ethics. If we have limited time we should focus on roads,” Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said. “She his trying to stick (the) ethics (bill) in between us and getting the road bill done, that is what this is about.”
Haley’s budget proposal did include $100 million in nonrecurring money for road repairs, something Haley held a news conference on in February. She said in her State of the State address that she would never sign a law raising the gas tax.