Income Disclosure Laws: How Does S.C. Rank?


South Carolinians have become accustomed to seeing their state placed at or near the wrong side of a variety of national rankings. Early childhood education, SAT scores, domestic violence, per capita income, physical fitness, cardiac health – the state usually finds itself somewhere between 40 and 50 (and in at least one case 51 – a ranking in which Washington DC is ranked).

One ranking, however, has received less attention than it should. Early this year, the governor’s Ethics Reform Commission released its report, and among other things pointed out that South Carolina is the only state in the nation that doesn’t require elected officials to disclose any private income. Indeed, the only partial exception to this rule in South Carolina is the Policy Council’s voluntary income source disclosure project, Conflict Watch.

State lawmakers are only required to report the income they make from government sources. What they make from private sources – including companies or industries that reap direct benefits from the bills they sponsor and promote – is not public knowledge. Nor is it anyone’s business (at least according to state law) whether a lawmaker will benefit financially from, say, a vote to put a major highway along a certain route.

Granted: Officials in other states find ways to get around their disclosure laws, and some of those laws are weak. Still, South Carolina’s laws are indisputably the weakest. Consider our disclosure laws compared to those of other Southeastern states:

In Georgia, elected officials must disclose the name of the business from which they receive income if they own 5 percent of the firm or more (or have $5,000 invested in it, whichever is lowest).

In North Carolina, disclosure is required for any income over $5,000 in the last business year. Attorneys are required to disclose fees of more than $10,000 in the last business year, and to indicate whether they earned $10,000 or more from any one of a list of 14 categories of legal representation.

In Alabama, officials must disclose information on all employment in which they or their immediate family members spent at least one-third of their working time. They must also disclose the household income of all immediate family members, with information on sources of income; information on businesses in which they or their family member own at least 5 percent stock or are high-ranking employees. And they must disclose all property held by them, their spouses, and their dependents.

In Mississippi, officials must disclose information on businesses in which they hold positions, if their total income from those positions exceeds $2,500. Likewise they must disclose the existence of any business in which they hold “ownership” positions, or in which they hold at least $5,000 in assets or a 10 percent interest.

In Tennessee, officials must disclose their own and their family’s income sources exceeding $1,000, and any business in which they hold at least 5 percent financial interest or more than $10,000.

Finally, in Florida, officials are required to reveal individual sources of income if those sources are at least 5 percent of total gross income, or all income over $2,500; business interests in which they earned at least 10 percent of their gross income, or earned at least $5,000; business in which they hold leadership positions; and property in which they hold at least a 5 percent ownership.

Nearly all of these laws could be strengthened in some fashion. Yet all are vastly superior to the absence of any laws governing the revelation of private income sources. Other states’ law codes may not prevent corruption to the degree they should. But at least they don’t actively encourage it.

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