Amendment to S.C. House ethics bill would keep criminal penalties for ethics violations
COLUMBIA — An amendment to a major House ethics reform bill would keep criminal penalties for ethics violations by officials, including using campaign funds for personal use.
The amendment and bill are set for a key vote Tuesday ahead of the May 1 crossover deadline, a critical hurdle when legislation must reach the opposite chamber for the proposal to have a good shot at passing this year.
Among other changes to current ethics laws, the amendment also would:
• Create a 16-member legislative ethics committee in place of the currently separate House and Senate ethics committees. The committees have been criticized because they allow lawmakers to police their own. The new proposed panel would include eight members of the public chosen by legislative caucuses in each chamber, four House members chosen by the House and four senators chosen by the Senate.
• Force individuals who are paid to lobby local governments to register as lobbyists.
• Require state lawmakers to disclose private sources of income but not amounts.
The restoration of criminal penalties under the amendment follows an outcry by state government watchdog groups, who have said the decriminalization and other aspects of the bill would represent a major step back in the state’s ethics laws.
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said Thursday that legislators never intended to decriminalize serious ethics offenses.
The watchdog groups and others also have criticized how quickly the bill was passed by two House panels without being available for the public to view online.
Bannister said he would have liked to have had the bill available for public view for months, but the tight timeline made that difficult.
Lawmakers have known the crossover deadline was coming. It is May 1 every year.
This legislative session was supposed to mark the year of ethics reform in South Carolina following a number of recent high-profile ethics controversies.
Many ethics bills were introduced early in the session, but progress on a wide-ranging bill was slow until last week, when the House bill was introduced and quickly cleared by the two panels.
The House must give the proposal a second reading by the end of the day Tuesday and a third and final reading Wednesday in order for the bill to reach the Senate before crossover.
House members had planned to debate the bill Thursday. But Bannister and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said they were fine with giving members time to digest the new amendment, which is 38 printed pages long.
Both leaders said an unrelated ruling by the State Supreme Court this week gave rise to concerns about whether outright elimination of all legislative ethics committees would meet constitutional muster. Instead, the amendment would create a joint committee.
The court decision reversed an increase in state employee health insurance premiums imposed by the state Budget and Control Board. Justices ruled the board’s decision was unconstitutional, siding with the Legislature.
An ethics study panel created by Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this year called on the Legislature to eliminate its ethics committees, among other suggestions.
Haley said in a statement Thursday that the House has a unique opportunity to strengthen the state’s ethics laws and restore public trust by passing the bill Tuesday.
“Any and every effort to delay past Tuesday is an effort to kill ethics reform — and that is something South Carolina cannot afford,” she said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.