State ethics bill is too weak

May 31, 2014 

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    Creating an independent oversight panel is essential to any ethics reform bill passed by the South Carolina legislature.

State lawmakers appear willing to pass a watered-down ethics reform bill that continues to allow legislators to police themselves. We question whether a bill that doesn’t contain a provision for an independent oversight commission composed of non-legislators is even worth passing.

At first glance, it is tempting to accept whatever slight improvements are included in two similar bills from the House and Senate. For example, both bills include requiring lawmakers to disclose all sources of their income as well as money going to their immediate family.

That would be a key element to any reform bill. Lawmakers currently don’t have to reveal any details about their income.

The two bills also would ban leadership political-action committees. And the law would be reworded to require political committees to file campaign finance-disclosure reports.

These also are desirable changes. But the reforms are likely to have little impact on the behavior of lawmakers without impartial, outside oversight and mechanisms to enforce the rules.

Financial disclosure is vital to ensuring that the public knows who might be trying to influence our elected officials and to whom they are beholden. But what body is going to review the disclosure forms and ensure that lawmakers have revealed all sources of income?

And if they haven’t followed the rules, can we count on fellow lawmakers to impartially assess ethics charges and, if necessary, determine punishment?

The dispute over whether ethics allegations against House Speaker Bobby Harrell should be pursued by the state attorney general or heard first by the House ethics panel is instructive. Harrell is doing whatever he can to ensure that his case goes to the ethics panel, no doubt assuming that he would receive more lenient treatment from fellow House members.

The House passed a proposal that would create an investigative panel to examine ethics complaints against legislators, judges, the governor and other constitutional officers. But that is almost certain to be cut from whatever bill that might emerge from a conference committee.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, who is expected to chair the conference committee, said that without the independent oversight panel, “the rest of the bill is doable.” But that would leave an essential part of the job unfinished.

Lawmakers have been at this task for 1 1/2 years. Many of them declared in January that ethics reform was at the top of the legislative priority list this session.

Gov. Nikki Haley has invested heavily in the issue, making passage of ethics reform a big plank in her re-election platform.

We can only conclude that, in the end, lawmakers don’t have the stomach for appointing an independent group to police them. The state might be better off if lawmakers don’t pass any bill and have to start from scratch again next year.

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