When an ethics reform bill failed to pass in the state Senate at the end of the 2013 session, there was hope senators might pass it when they return in January. Unfortunately, senators appear just as unlikely to pass a bill with teeth in it this time as they were the last time.
The Senate bill required more transparency from lawmakers regarding sources of income and donations, and had stiffer enforcement mechanisms than the House version. Significantly, it also proposed an outside commission appointed by the governor and Legislature to investigate ethics complaints.
Following the investigation, the commission would report its findings to the House and Senate Ethics committees, which would decide what, if any, action was necessary. While we question the need to preserve separate House and Senate Ethics committees, this bill at least allowed the formation of an independent watchdog commission to oversee complaints.
But the proposal that anyone but senators be allowed to judge their colleagues is one of the main reasons the bill failed. While the plan had significant support, including that of Gov. Nikki Haley, the clock ran out before it could be approved.
But before the session ended, Senate Pro Tempore John Courson appointed a special panel of three Republicans and three Democrats to study the proposal and revise it so it would pass when lawmakers return in January. Unfortunately, the panel’s solution might be to remove anything resembling independent oversight.
During a public hearing last week, the lawmakers said they don’t support changing the process of enforcing the state’s ethics law – namely, letting lawmakers judge themselves.
The state’s current ethics laws – last revised in 1991 following the Operation Lost Trust scandal –are inadequate in many respects. For one, they don’t require lawmakers to report sources of income for themselves, their families or their business associates, nor money they receive from lobbyists.
Campaign disclosure reports are only rarely reviewed. Rules governing campaign contributions and use of that money are enforced only when complaints arise.
But an independent, public ethics commission with the power to enforce the law would go a long way toward reforming the system.
We hope the Legislature will approve significant changes to state ethics laws in January, especially those covering disclosure of money sources. We also hope lawmakers will designate enough staff members to adequately review disclosure forms and to raise complaints about violations.
But, with the panel’s announcement last week that members don’t favor significant changes in enforcing the state’s ethics laws, we hold out little hope for an independent ethics commission. That raises the question of whether lawmakers really are serious about ensuring that they serve their state in an ethically responsible manner.