Op-Ed: SC Senate’s best option was to kill deceptive ‘ethics’ bill

July 1, 2014 

We take ethics in government seriously. When the people’s trust is broken, the people's business cannot be done. Real ethics reform in South Carolina must be based on two overriding principles: complete financial disclosure by officials and an independent body to investigate alleged wrongdoing by elected officials in the legislative or executive branches.

On the last day of this year’s legislative session, House Bill 3945 — commonly referred to as the ethics bill — died when a bipartisan majority of the Senate refused to pass it. We joined with other senators in insisting that our state deserved better than a watered-down bill that failed to deliver fundamental reforms.

No one can reasonably argue that our state’s current ethics law adequately checks the behavior of those elected to serve the people. That law, last revised more than two decades ago, earned our state an "F," and a numerical score of just 57 percent, from the State Integrity Investigation, a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

The version of H.3945 debated this month in the Senate had a section requiring disclosure of income sources, but not the amounts received from those sources — information vital to assessing whether a lawmaker has a conflict of interest. But what truly made the bill unacceptable was the deletion of the section requiring some independent oversight of elected officials’ behavior.

Many of those following the legislative process closely saw this coming. A few weeks before the session ended, The Herald in Rock Hill wrote: "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."

We asked ourselves that question, and decided that it wasn’t. The Greenville News put it well when it wrote: "There is no conceivable way a House or Senate ethics committee can always objectively investigate alleged ethics violations by its own members; and even if an objective investigation were possible, the illusion of subjectivity creates questions about any conclusions."

Still, some contended that passing a watered-down ethics bill would be better than nothing. They argued, "Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

The State in Columbia correctly summed up the flaw in this reasoning: "The problem lies in the temptation it (passing H.3945) gives our legislators to check ‘ethics reform’ off their to-do list and go on their merry way, as if they have reformed our ethics law." And it correctly advised that the bill "should be passed only with the very clear and explicit acknowledgment that it is not an ethics-reform bill."

Far from acknowledging that it wasn’t an ethics-reform bill, however, proponents praised H.3945 on the floor of the Senate as comprehensive ethics reform. And senior lawmakers in both parties privately acknowledged that if it became law, ethics was done for another 20 years. The people of South Carolina deserve better than this.

In addition to the critical omission of independent oversight of elected officials’ actions, H.3945 was deficient in that it broadly defined "electioneering communications" to include any person or group that even references a candidate in a communication within 60 days of a general or 30 days of a primary election. This would force many non-political organizations to disclose their top donors, thus chilling free speech — which is why government-watchdog groups from across the ideological spectrum opposed the bill.

South Carolina citizens deserve access to information on whether their elected officials have conflicts of interest and an independent process to hold them accountable. Right now they have neither, and H.3945 wouldn’t have provided it. Ultimately, ethical government comes only when we elect ethical people. But a strong ethics law would help hold unethical officials accountable. The job now is to pass a law next session that does that.

Davis is a Republican state senator from Beaufort and Sheheen is a state senator from Camden who is the Democratic nominee for governor in the November election. Contact them at vsheheen@gmail.com or tom@senatortomdavis.com .

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