COLUMBIA — The director of the State Ethics Commission said Wednesday his agency can’t take on additional oversight duties without more money.
The agency can barely operate on its current budget, executive director Herb Hayden told reporters.
The 10-person agency handles roughly 25,000 forms filed yearly from candidates, office holders and lobbyists, and conducts between 140 and 175 investigations a year based solely on complaints and tips. Random audits of campaign finance and public disclosure filings would require at least two more employees, Hayden said after presenting his budget request to a House panel.
Hayden asked the Ways and Means panel for an additional $390,000 from the state’s general fund to fully cover employees’ salaries. Currently, 70 percent of the agency’s total operating budget of $810,000 comes from the fees and fines it collects. Funding the bulk of salaries from those so-called “other funds” creates problems, he said. For example, when legislators gave most state employees a 3 percent salary increase in the current budget, the agency had to come up with most of that on its own.
“It’s not fair to do it that way,” agreed Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
Legislators in both parties say ethics reform is a top priority this year. Gov. Nikki Haley is among those who advocate abolishing the House and Senate ethics panels and transferring their duties to the State Ethics Commission.
Currently, the legislative committees handle complaints against their current and former members, while the State Ethics Commission handles complaints against all other elected officials. Critics liken the secretive House and Senate panels to a fox guarding the hen house.
Calls for eliminating them were renewed last year when the House Ethics Committee twice cleared Haley of allegations that she lobbied for two employers while a House member. Haley has said that ordeal prompted her, too, to call for the committees’ end.
Hayden told the three-person House panel Wednesday he had no estimates for what it might cost for his agency to take on additional responsibilities.
For starters, he said, “I don’t know how many complaints y’all receive.”
While Hayden didn’t request money for any potential increase in duties, paying 100 percent of the 10 employees’ salaries from state tax collections would free up money the commission collects from fees, fines and training — as long as the Legislature maintained the agency’s “other funds” spending authorization.
The vast majority of those funds come from lobbying fees and late filing fines, Hayden said.
Subcommittee Chairman Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said he wants to try again to double the $100 registration fee that each lobbyist pays yearly. The fees paid by South Carolina lobbyists should at least match the Southeastern average, he said.
That idea previously failed in the Senate.
Merrill said he also will push to change how the Ethics Commission’s board members are appointed. Currently, the governor appoints all nine members of the board that oversees the agency, though the Legislature must consent to the governor’s picks. Merrill believes that gives one person too much potential influence.