Legislature must act on ethics reform, government restructuring

January 11, 2014 

  • In summary

    Legislature should have passed comprehensive ethics reform and government restructuring in 2013.

Sadly, two of the issues that state lawmakers desperately need to address when they reconvene on Tuesday are issues that should have been settled last year.

Both ethics reform and restructuring of state government have been high priorities for years, but both had failed to gain traction in the Legislature until last year. And, at the end of the 2013 session, both measures had advanced almost halfway toward passage, only to fail in the last moments of the session.

In the case of ethics reform, that might be a blessing in disguise. A watered-down bill was passed by the House but, while the Senate bill improved on that effort, it, too, did not go far enough in requiring public disclosure from lawmakers regarding their sources of income, in establishing an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints and in providing the means to enforce ethics rules.

After the failure to pass the Senate bill, Senate President Pro Tempere John Courson appointed a bipartisan panel to fashion a new proposal for when lawmakers return this month. We hope a new Senate bill will go farther in both requiring transparency regarding where lawmakers get their money and in establishing independent oversight to ensure that they follow the rules.

The state’s current ethics laws were last revised in 1991 following the Operation Lost Trust scandal. These standards are entirely inadequate. They fail to require lawmakers to report sources of income for themselves, their families or their business associates, nor money they receive from lobbyists.

In addition, lawmakers essentially police themselves through separate House and Senate ethics committees. As a result, campaign disclosure reports are only rarely reviewed, and rules governing campaign contributions and use of that money are enforced only when complaints arise.

Last year’s Senate bill offered a promising alternative: an independent ethics commission appointed by the Legislature and the governor to investigate alleged violations and report them to the two ethics committees. While we question the need for separate ethics committees, an independent commission would be welcome.

Any bill also should strengthen income reporting requirements for lawmakers. The residents of South Carolina deserve to know who is paying our elected officials and who could potentially be influencing them.

Restructuring of state government also is long overdue. With its Budget and Control Board, South Carolina’s state government is the most archaic in the nation.

The board consist of the governor, the state treasurer, the comptroller general, the Senate Finance Committee chairman and the state House Ways and Means Committee chairman. It runs much of the executive branch of the government.

South Carolina is the only state in the nation with such a cumbersome system. With so many competing interests represented on the board, it ensures that no one will be entirely accountable for running the government.

In this state, the governor does not even have the authority to appoint most boards and commissions. The Legislature retains the right to make those appointments, again making authority so dispersed that no one really is accountable.

Last year, the state Senate easily passed a bill to dismantle the Budget and Control Board. But the House dawdled long enough to stall the bill as the session ended.

When lawmakers reconvene Tuesday, they need to revisit the proposal to ax the Budget and Control Board. In addition they need to enact other proposals to streamline government, including turning over authority to the governor to appoint members of boards and commissions.

The governor also should be permitted to appoint state constitutional officers, such as the superintendent of education, who now are elected. This would require approval by voters of constitutional amendments, but lawmakers need to vote to put those amendments on the ballot.

State lawmakers have been reluctant to cede power to the executive branch, but falure to both give governors the authority to serve as a real chief executive – or to hold them accountable – is a disservice to the residents of this state.

While these tasks should have been completed last year, we’ll give lawmakers credit for a successful session if they manage to take care of them this year.

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