Giant Ethics Bill to Hit Senate Floor

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THIS YEARS ETHICS DEBATE

On April 5, 2016, the South Carolina Senate will begin debating the omnibus ethics-related bill that is currently on special order. What follows is an overview of what bills are currently in the Senate, where they stand in the process, and exactly what they would do.

Right now, H.3184 is the one to watch. SCPC will be monitoring the debate closely as it starts next week and posting updates both here on our website and on Twitter with the hashtag #SCethics.


H.3184 – the omnibus bill

Status: special order, debate starting April 5

This is the main ethics bill the Senate effort is behind and is a compilation of several individual ethics bills, some of which are listed below. The omnibus bill would, among other things:

  • Mandate the disclosure of most of public officials’ private sources of income (not currently required by law), but at the same time carve out multiple exceptions to the new disclosure requirements.
  • Add several highly significant exceptions to the existing law requiring disclosure of public income and income received from lobbyists.
  • Place the State Ethics Commission partly under the control of the General Assembly and allow it to investigate lawmakers, leaving the power to punish lawmakers in the hands of the General Assembly’s ethics committees.
  • Formally allow the legislative ethics committees to issue confidential (i.e. secret) advisory opinions to legislators on potentially dubious ethical conduct.
  • Continue to allow legislators to use campaign funds for almost any expense conceivable.

Read the full analysis here.

A number of other, narrower bills are still out there as well. Below are brief analyses.

Current ethics bills: What they do, what they don't

Current ethics bills: What they do, what they don’t


H.3722 – preserving legislative self-policing

Status: passed committee, stalled in the Senate

This bill was originally the House omnibus ethics bill. The Senate gutted it in committee and replaced it with the text of S.1, eventually incorporating it into the Senate omnibus bill (H.3184). This bill allows the State Ethics Commission to investigate lawmakers while placing the Commission partway under the control of the General Assembly. It also gives the legislative ethics committees power to review and overrule the Commission’s findings and decisions pertaining to lawmakers.

This legislation would also limit the documents that can be released after a finding of probable cause in an ethics case to (1) the complaint itself, (2) a response by the subject of the complaint, and (3) the notice of hearing. It also limits documents subject to disclosure after a final order is issued to the order itself and all exhibits introduced at the hearing. The bill does require a higher level of private income disclosure, but it removes disclosure requirements on government income.

Read the full analysis here.


H.3186 – limited income disclosure

Status: passed committee, stalled in the Senate

This bill would require lawmakers to disclose their private income sources and require more disclosure on their Statement of Economic Interests (SEI) but fails to require the reporting of all income and all matters from which an elected official can obtain an economic interest — specifically matters dealing with economic development. Further, the bill does not revise the phrase “business with which he is associated” to cover businesses in which the legislator has less than a $100,000 or 5 percent interest – an obvious reporting loophole.

Read the full analysis here.


H.3187 – Turning non-political organizations into PACs

Status: passed committee, stalled in the Senate

This bill aims to rectify a constitutional issue in South Carolina’s code. A 2010 court ruling found South Carolina’s definition of “committee” unconstitutional, and so the state is without a legal definition on the matter. This bill would apply a legal definition of a “committee” – a PAC – to a group or individual that has the “major purpose” of nominating, electing, or defeating a candidate, or promoting or defeating a ballot measure. This is important for two reasons: (1) because the Supreme Court has ruled that the definition of committee “need only encompass organizations that are under the control of a candidate or the major purpose of which is the nomination or election of a candidate,” and (2) because committees are subject to certain public disclosure requirements.

Read the full analysis here.


H.3188 – Eliminating legislative PACs

Status: passed committee, stalled in the Senate

This bill would eliminate language in the state code that currently allows legislators to operate leadership political action committees, or PACs. While this presents a sensible change to South Carolina law, it falls short of full reform by failing to prohibit candidates from accepting contributions from political parties or legislative caucus committees. Powerful public officials would still be able to use these vehicles as they previously used leadership PACs. The bill also raises limits on campaign contributions and adds a possible loophole allowing candidates or elected officials to make campaign contributions out of their campaign funds.

Read the full analysis here.


H.3189 – Requiring non-political groups to disclose donors

Status: passed committee, stalled in the Senate

This legislation turns one of the worst provisions of last session’s atrocious “ethics” legislation into a stand-alone bill. H.3189 would require individuals making an independent expenditure in excess of $500 dollars during a calendar year, or an individual making an electioneering communication, to file a report of the expenditure or communication with the State Ethics Commission — subjecting the individual to regulation and reporting requirements for a pretty minimal investment. The bill would further require groups that make an “electioneering communication” to disclose their donors. Electioneering communication is broadly defined as any person or group that, through broadcast, cable, satellite, mass postal mailing, or telephone bank, even references a candidate within 60 days of a general or 30 days of a primary election. That definition is far too broad and would almost certainly invite a court challenge given the precedent set by numerous rulings in favor of protected speech and issue advocacy.

Read the full analysis here.

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