COLUMBIA — A state Senate panel Tuesday advanced an ethics-reform package aimed at keeping South Carolina legislators from investigating themselves and that would broaden income-disclosure requirements. Senators are amending what the House sent them last week. Critics pushing for reform hope the continued process leads to a stronger bill.Legislators have one month left in the regular session.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, acknowledged Tuesday that it will be hard to get final approval between the chambers in time, particularly since the Senate will be tied up next week with debating the budget. He called a full Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday in hopes of moving the ethics bill to the floor.
Both parties called ethics reform a top priority before the session started. But there was little movement until last month. That’s when House leaders worked out a compromise that could make it to the Senate before a legislative deadline for bills to be approved this year.
Unlike the House plan, the bill headed to the Senate Judiciary Committee overhauls the makeup of the state Ethics Commission board and puts that agency in charge of investigating possible ethics violations by legislators.
The measure keeps House and Senate ethics committees in place but changes their roles. The legislative panels would publicly determine how to punish their members for non-criminal allegations only after the commission does its work and finds probable cause a violation occurred. Criminal matters would be forwarded to the attorney general’s office.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said his plan ensures an independent investigation while avoiding constitutional questions.
Critics backing reform favor abolishing the legislative ethics panels completely, saying legislators can’t adequately police their colleagues. But many legislators who disagree point to a clause in the state constitution that says each chamber is responsible for disciplining its members.
“This avoids a big fight over amending the constitution,” Campsen said.
He criticized the House plan as neither creating an independent investigative body nor finding a way around the constitutional issue.
The House approved a measure creating a joint House-Senate ethics committee composed of eight legislators and eight people they select, with both parties equally represented. It would leave the state Ethics Commission responsible for overseeing ethics issues of non-legislative campaigns.
Campsen’s plan reconstitutes the commission’s board, with the House and Senate each appointing two people and the governor naming four. Currently, the governor appoints all of the State Ethics Commission’s nine board members.
The Senate also amended income disclosure rules. Public officials would have to reveal not only their sources of income, including — as the House did — contracts with private companies, but also who pays their spouse and business.
Campsen wanted also to require politicians to post the amounts that private sources pay, but that proposal failed.
Sen. Brad Hutto said disclosing how much a spouse’s job pays, for example, doesn’t provide worthwhile information to the public, but it does raise privacy concerns.
“How much money she makes is not anybody’s business because it doesn’t make a difference,” said Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “You know enough to know there’s a conflict of interest without disclosing salaries.”
Campsen agreed the most important thing was to disclose the source, to show when a potential conflict of interest exists. The amount only comes into play if it’s an outrageous sum, he said.
“The amount is really about whether it passes the smell test,” he said.