The downfall of House Speaker Bobby Harrell will reverberate into the next legislative session, as lawmakers will once again take up the issue of ethics reform.
Speaker pro tem Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, on Wednesday named the members of a new committee to re-examine the thorny issue of policing State House members’ ethics after the now-suspended speaker was indicted last month on charges of misusing campaign funds.
State Reps. Tommy Pope and Ralph Norman, both York County Republicans, were among the 22 legislators appointed to the committee. State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, also was named to the committee.
The lawmakers have been charged with formulating a blueprint for the next round of ethics discussion in the House, which passed an ethics plan at the end of the 2014 session that did not pass the Senate.
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“In the months leading up to the 2015 legislative session,” Lucas said, “the House will focus on maintaining the momentum driving ethics reform and will work to identify additional areas we can address to further strengthen our reform efforts.”
Norman, a longtime critic of Harrell, said the reform package that passed the House earlier this year didn’t go far enough.
“What we passed last (session) was a joke,” Norman said. “To Jay’s credit, he wants to pass real reform.”
The House bill would have empowered an independent commission to investigate the conduct of lawmakers, but would have referred them back to their chambers for disciplinary action. Norman wants that decision taken out of legislators’ hands completely.
“I shouldn’t be able to judge the people who I work alongside and vote with,” he said. “That’s the fox guarding the henhouse. We need to get that outside the House.”
Pope agrees, but he worries that removing the Legislature entirely might not be possible, politically or legally.
“There’s some constitutional language about the House being responsible for the discipline of its own members,” he said. “Even though, at the time, that was probably meant to keep us from going outside and having a duel, there are those who will say that constitutional provision stands in the way...
“Personally, I feel if you’re innocent, you should want it to go to a third party, because then nobody can say you got some home cooking.”
At a minimum, Pope said, independent investigators will be needed to look over charges against legislators. Norman hopes that any self-serving efforts to avoid a change in the state’s ethics structure will be prevented by the committee’s public format.
“I’m sure there will be discussion,” Norman said, “but if they disagree, all these meetings will be open to the public, and they can say what they would propose.”
Last year’s bill likely will be used as a template for the committee’s work, but lawmakers probably will break it down into individual pieces for consideration. In particular, Pope wants to see a team of solicitors and public defenders go through the state’s ethics rules to determine what counts as a criminal versus a civil violation – a sticking point in the Harrell investigation.
While the speaker’s legal troubles might have kept the issue in the spotlight, Pope, who served on the previous committee to address ethics reform, believes there already was enough momentum behind the issue from last session for members to carry it to the finish line.
“This feels like unfinished business, regardless of whose in charge,” Pope said. “But now, it probably will be even more on the front burner.”
Harrell’s removal will only increase the chances of a strong reform measure passing, Norman said.
“Now nothing’s going to get squashed,” he said. “I’m ecstatic to be doing this, because we have a chance to get something substantive out of it.”
At the very least, the scandal will encourage legislators to do something to clear the air around the capital.
“There are a lot of good, ethical, hard-working legislators in Columbia, and right now it’s easy to lump them all together,” Pope said. “You’ll really see us roll up our sleeves on this.”