Half Time Ethics Report

It’s the beginning of April and lawmakers‘ two-week furlough is almost up, leaving us at roughly the half-way point of the 2013 legislative session. This was supposed to be the Year of Ethics Reform, but is it? Below is a “half-time report” detailing what’s been done already and what’s yet to be done.

While some bills are substantive attempts to achieve genuine ethics reform – our agenda is summarized here – others either ignore significant reform, offer only rhetorical versions of it, or in some cases actually oppose it. Here is an overview of the major legislation so for (click to enlarge the image):


Note: “green bills” fit one or more of our agenda points, but are not complete reform bills. No one bill thus far enacts all of the needed reforms, but many of these lengthy bills are proposed under the guise of “fix all” bills, when they only touch on a few actual reforms.

Government Reshuffling

S.22 is a government “restructuring” bill that would create a Department of Administration as a part of the executive branch. Unfortunately, like the similar bills that have failed to pass over the past couple years, the first version of this bill failed to restructure state government in a way that creates a clear separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A more detailed analysis of this bill and its amendments can be found here.

Strengthening Ethics Laws

H.3407 would improve South Carolina’s ethics laws in a number of important ways. The bill would prohibit PACs organized by or for constitutional officers or members of the General Assembly, allow lawmakers to be investigated by the State Ethics Commission, require disclosure of all governmental income including income from the federal government, prohibit lawmakers from serving as lobbyists for five years after leaving office instead of one, strengthen the reporting requirements for gifts or remuneration from lobbyists, vendors, and employers on lawmakers’ statements of economic interest, and require copies of receipts for all campaign expenditures to be included on certified campaign reports.

While this bill does not address all of our ethics concerns (it doesn’t end lawmakers’ exemption from FOIA, for instance) it goes a long way toward achieving genuine reforms, most notably making members of the General Assembly accountable to the State Ethics Commission. This bill, unlike some weaker ethics bills, appears to be a serious attempt to strengthen our state’s ethics laws.

Repealing Joint Open Budget Hearings Law

H.3647 would repeal the section of state code, 11-11-90, which mandates that the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees hold joint open sessions considering the governor’s budget. We have written often and extensively on why this open budget law matters and how the legislature has ignored it altogether. Unfortunately, this bill would legalize the legislature’s practice of ignoring an excellent law.

Reforming Ethics Laws with a Notable Omission

H.3772 would make a number of reforms to state ethics laws but noticeably fails to address one crucial aspect of ethics reform. The bill makes lawmakers subject to hearings by the State Ethics Commission and creates the Public Integrity Unit (comprised of the Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission, the Attorney General, the Director of the South Carolina Department of Revenue, the Chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and the Inspector General) to carry out investigations of possible ethics violations referred to it by the State Ethics Commission and other partner organizations. The bill would further expand the definition of economic interest for public officials and would require that lawmakers disclose business income on their statements of economic interest.

Many of the changes made by this bill are laudable, but unfortunately it fails to address a critical flaw in our current ethics law. While lawmakers would now be subject to State Ethics Commission hearings, they would still be punished for ethics violations by their fellow lawmakers in the House and Senate Ethics Committees. Most of the reforms provided by this bill are needed and should be pursued, but it shouldn’t pass over one of the most flagrant instances of institutionalized corruption on the books: legislative self-policing.

Restoring Judicial Independence

S.197 and S.200 would remove the power of the legislative branch of being the sole arbiters of choosing judges in South Carolina. S.200 proposes a constitutional amendment to provide that Supreme Court justices, judges on the Court of Appeals, and Circuit Court Judges be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate rather than elected by the General Assembly. In addition, it repeals provisions requiring the General Assembly to establish a Judicial Merit Selection Committee. S.197 would amend the state code to provide these same provisions for appointing Family Court and Administrative Law Court judges.

Currently, South Carolina is the only state in the nation in which the legislature unilaterally appoints judges with absolutely no involvement from the governor. Enacting these reforms would eliminate lawmakers’ exclusive power to decide who interprets their laws. Additionally, it would give the governor, who represents the entire state, not just a district, some influence in the judicial branch.

Shortening Session (Somewhat)

H.3094 would force the General Assembly to adjourn on the last Thursday before Memorial Day in May, rather than the first Thursday in June, shortening session by two weeks. Moreover, it deletes their authority to extend the session past that day. The longer your lawmakers are in session, the more time they have to spend your money on superfluous programs, listen to lobbyists and consultants, make decent legislation egregious, and congratulate holes-in-one at exclusive golf clubs. The bill would be a step in the right direction, but a step is just a step, and there’s no reason why South Carolina’s legislative session, among the longest in the country, shouldn’t be substantially shorter.

H.3340 goes a step further than the bill above, as it proposes a constitutional amendment that provides that the General Assembly not convene until the second Tuesday of February and must adjourn sine die not later than the first Thursday in May.

H.3259 would shorten session by one month starting the General Assembly session on the second Tuesday in February rather than January.

Expanding Income Disclosure Requirements

H.3083 would require a slightly more stringent level of income disclosure. Lawmakers would have to disclose income from all governmental sources, including the federal government, compensation received from lobbyists, and compensation from vendors who hold contracts with the state. While this would shine a little light on the many ties between lobbyist and politicians and the innumerable conflicts of interest currently obtaining in the State House, what’s obviously needed is the disclosure of private income sources (as is done in many other states and the U.S. Congress).

Strengthening FOIA (Somewhat)

H.3163 would take various measures to strengthen the current Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law such as providing that records must be furnished at the lowest costs to the person who requested them. The deposit that the government requests couldn’t be more than 25 percent of the total cost of furnishing the documents. A response would have to be given back to the person who requested the documents within 7 calendar days of the request, and if granted it would have to be made available in 30 calendar days.

This bill fixes some issues with the current FOIA law, but it does not deal with one of the worst parts of the law, Section 30-4-40, which conveniently exempts state lawmakers (see here).

Raises for Legislators

H.3108 would raise legislators’ salaries to $50,000 a year starting in 2015. We have long expressed the need for a citizen legislature. Legislators should spend less time in the capital using up fewer state resources and allowing themselves to earn more income from other professions outside politics. Raising legislative salaries would further entrench the concept of the professional legislator and would move more resources to both House and Senate, which have been already raising their respective budgets in recent years.

Shortening the Path between Law-Maker and Law-Checker

Current state law prohibits members of the General Assembly from being Administrative Law Judges for four years after their stint as a lawmaker. H.3304 would shorten this prohibition period to one year. Without a doubt, this would open the door to cronyism by blurring the lines between the legislative and judicial branches even further. Interestingly enough, the same sponsor of this bill previously attempted to add this provision as an amendment to an unrelated crime bill, as explained by The Nerve.

Eliminating Corporate Income Tax

H.3264 would eliminate South Carolina’s corporate income tax over a four-year period, which would be a great step towards making South Carolina an economically competitive state. Legislation like this would best be coupled with the elimination of taxpayer-funded incentives for specific companies – something that has fostered a culture of secrecy, favoritism, and rent-seeking in Columbia. Special corporate tax exemptions, moreover, put small businesses at a disadvantage and haven’t proven to boost our state’s overall economy in any empirically demonstrable way.

Ending Legislative Self-Policing

S.347 would change the law code to make lawmakers accountable to the State Ethics Commission, as are other state government officials, rather than the House and Senate Ethics Committees. The current system creates a perverse incentive to be lenient with fellow lawmakers in exchange for any number of favors lawmakers are empowered to bequeath.

Requiring Private Source Income Disclosure and Other Reforms

S.338 makes a number of changes to state ethics laws, including: raising lobbyist registration fees; expanding definitions of economic interest; requiring lawmakers to disclose the source, but not amount, of private income (with exceptions for court orders, interests on bank accounts, and mutual funds);and prohibiting political action committees organized by state and local elected officials or agency members appointed by the governor. This bill addresses a number of important issues, most importantly the disclosure by lawmakers of private sources of income.

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