Why Ethics Reform?

 2013 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE ‘YEAR OF ETHICS REFORM.’ IT WASN’T. SO DOES ANYONE CARE?

At the conclusion of the 2013 legislative session, as the Senate prepared to vote on the legislature’s only attempt to reform the state’s ethics code – the bill was killed – Senator Luke Rankin (R-Horry) made the claim that “people are not talking to me in Horry County about ethics reform.” He went on:

They’re talking about infrastructure. They’re talking about education. They’re not talking about how industries are not coming to Horry County … because our politicians look to be in it for themselves; they ain’t talking about this. … They want to talk about jobs.

We’ll leave Senator Rankin to his own opinion about what his constituents are or are not talking about. But it may help to recall a few circumstances that led citizens, beginning a year ago and persisting until the end of this year’s session, to demand their lawmakers to take up ethics reform – not pass weak legislation that leaves most areas of the law untouched and weakens most of the rest, but a genuine transformation and strengthening of laws governing our elected officials’ behavior.

Flagrant, sometimes actually illegal, nepotism

When the General Assembly made appointments to higher education institutions earlier this year, the candidate pool was packed with immediate family members of current lawmakers – three family members among a single school’s candidates, in one case. Nor was this all that unusual: although the spirit of state law certainly forbids the practice, lawmakers consistently take advantage of the law’s vagueness by packing important (and in some cases lucrative) boards with family members and close friends. Just this year, as The State’s Adam Beam reported in late May, “at least 11 candidates had some type of intimate connection to the 170 state lawmakers who will decide if they get a seat.” The Speaker of the House has even appointed his own brother to one of the most powerful boards in the state: the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

Legislators making millions while the state’s infrastructure crumbles

While South Carolina’s roads and bridges continue to earn notoriety as some of the worst in the southeastern United States, state lawmakers continue to lavish state transportation money on only a few politically influential parts of the state. Specifically: 35 counties have received no funding at all from the State Transportation and Infrastructure Bank (STIB) since it was created; 33 percent of all STIB money has gone to one county, Charleston; 95 percent of STIB monies have gone to six counties; and 0 percent of STIB funding has gone to maintenance and repair. To address a problem manifestly caused by perverse governmental priorities, the only significant transportation bill to make any headway in 2013 would have simply raised taxes and fees – thus punishing the taxpaying public for a problem brought on by elected officials’ corruption. Nor is “corruption” too strong a word. As The Nerve revealed this year, the very lawmaker who proposed and vocally supported the tax and fee hikes is partial owner of a concrete company that’s received $30 million in state contracts since 1993 – making that lawmaker deeply invested in preserving the current system of perverse priorities.

Elections carried out with incompetence and/or fraud

The most recent election in Richland County included the option of imposing a 1 percent sales tax increase (it’s now law). That election was run with shocking incompetence at best and illegal attempts to alter the result at worst. Voters in certain districts were forced to wait for hours in line due to voting machine shortages that violated state law. The election director responsible for the shortages and overall mismanagement, rather than being dismissed, has subsequently been rewarded with a new position.

(Nor was that the only example of local corruption spilling onto the front page. Think of the town councilman running an illegal video poker sweepstakes business in Lexington County and the state senator collecting thousands of dollars from the operation. Or think of the Gaston mayor and city clerks converting thousands of dollars of public money to their own use.)

“Ethics” legislation would have decriminalized most of the ethics code

When House lawmakers finally did get around to addressing ethics reform, a subcommittee and committee passed a bill that – breaking with all known precedent – was hidden from public view: unlike all other bills, the content of this legislation was not available online, and later some of the subcommittee and committee members claimed that some of its content was kept from them. And there was good reason for keeping it secret: Hidden within this lengthy bill were provisions dramatically reducing the penalties for ethics violations – some of the same violations, not coincidentally, that the Speaker of the House is under investigation for committing. That original legislation also would have required citizens who testify before legislative committees to register as lobbyists (a $200 fee), thus further shielding lawmakers from public criticism.

“Nullification” bill quietly gutted to open way for Medicaid expansion

Among the most brazenly dishonest shenanigans we’ve seen in years was the attempt to bring down billions in federal Medicaid money by quietly amended a “nullify Obamacare” bill to abolish the governor’s authority to turn down those funds. While the bill’s many co-sponsors left the bill’s title intact (the title, in this case all about making Obamacare “null and void,” has no legal authority), the bill’s contents were dramatically altered to give the General Assembly, not the governor, sole authority over the acceptance of Medicaid funds. Meanwhile, many of those who voted “aye” on “nullification” went on to sponsor a bill that explicitly sought to draw down funds tied to the Affordable Care Act.

Tens of millions borrowed and given to one company – without a word of explanation

As if it weren’t enough that lawmakers have supplied a single company with nearly a billion dollars in economic “incentives” – a company with revenues roughly three and a half times larger than South Carolina’s entire state budget – the legislature this year quickly signed off on a $120 million bond package for the same company. Unlike tax favors, this $120 million consisted of outright cash, to be paid back with interest by the South Carolina taxpayer. Making it an ethical matter rather than merely an instance of terrible policy, both lawmakers and the Commerce Department steadfastly refuse to explain what the money is for or why the company needed it.

Senator Rankin might be right that the people back home “ain’t talking about this.” But we doubt it.

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