Momentum is building in the Legislature for ethics reforms this year — enough momentum to bring about a badly needed overhaul. Lawmakers shouldn’t relent until it happens.
Four committees — two in the House, one in the Senate and one established by the governor — are weighing in on what needs to be done.
In Columbia on Thursday, legislators preparing for the new session were talking tough to journalists attending a workshop.
But until they talk about doing what is necessary to keep the fox from guarding the henhouse, they aren’t tough enough.
If there are legislators who say they like the status quo, they’re keeping a low profile. It is difficult to defend a system whereby members of the House investigate when a colleague is accused of an ethics violation.
It is a system whereby House members then decide whether or not to sanction the person they serve with, meet with and look to for support.
The same can be said for the Senate’s ethics rules.
Legislators who are serving on ethics reform committees are optimistic that they can make one fix: Seeing that the investigation of their colleagues is done independently of both bodies.
That’s a good start. South Carolinians know about the good ol’ boy system of scratching each other’s back, and they want better from their elected officials.
The second part of the fix will likely be more complicated, but it is equally important. Just as the investigation should be independent of the House or Senate, so should the prescribing of sanctions. At present, House and Senate committees decide on penalties. That change would require an amendment to the state Constitution, and that requires two-thirds support of both legislative chambers. Then, it requires a statewide referendum in 2014 at the earliest.
Let’s get started.
Meanwhile, it is of some comfort to know that the public will have access to the results of investigations and to ethics hearings, if there is reasonable cause. The House opened its process last year. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, assured journalists that any investigations into senators would be open as well.
So if either body fails to take appropriate action against a member who has violated ethics rules, the public will know. It’s something they can remember when the next election comes around.
And until the people have spoken by way of a referendum, the General Assembly should look for ways to further mitigate the dysfunctional system.
For example, Rep. G. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who serves on the Republican House Ethics Study Committee, has filed a bill that would require members to disclose the sources of their income. Citizens should know if their representative is being paid by a company with business before the Legislature.
Such a relationship should raise a red flag, and the public should be able to see it clearly.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairman of the Senate study committee, wants to consider curbing “mystery groups” that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support candidates and don’t have to disclose their identities.
Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville, a member of the Democratic study committee, wants to scrutinize leadership PACs. House members should not be able to contribute to any member of the House Ethics Committee secretly via a PAC, she said.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is affiliated with a leadership PAC that has channeled about a half-million dollars to the S.C. House Republican Caucus, the state Republican Party and more than 130 mostly incumbent Republican candidates for legislative office. The S.C. Senate does not allow such PACs.
It has been 20 years since ethics laws were examined closely in South Carolina. It is past time to take the issue seriously and establish a culture — legal and personal — of honesty, openness and honor.