COLUMBIA — A new state House bill backed by high-profile Republicans aims to bar a class of political groups in South Carolina from giving direct campaign contributions to candidates.
But there is uncertainty as to whether the proposal as written would accomplish that goal.
Among the sponsors of the new measure: House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston, who is affiliated with perhaps the most well-known such group operating in the state, the Palmetto Leadership Council.
The committee has doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct contributions to candidates — mostly incumbent Republicans — and other groups.
But under a campaign reform bill by House Speaker Pro Tem Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, candidates could no longer accept campaign contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council and a host of similar groups, Lucas said.
“What we intended to do with the bill was to stop individuals in the General Assembly from forming or having an involvement with political action committees that raise money,” Lucas said.
Lucas said the groups could be perceived as giving an unfair advantage to legislators.
Harrell said in a statement that he is backing Lucas’ proposal because it matches a recommendation by a House ethics reform study panel.
“To advance the issue of ethics reform in the House, I signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor,” he said. Lucas’ legislation would not bar legislative caucus committees or political parties from making direct campaign contributions, or keep candidates or public officials from making a contribution of their personal funds to a candidate for another office.
The bill also attempts to first define a committee, which the state hasn’t had a legal definition for since 2010, following a federal court ruling. That ruling has allowed anonymous groups in South Carolina to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from undisclosed sources.
But as with much of the modern campaign finance world, things are complicated. There’s some question as to whether Lucas’ bill would do what he wants it to do.
Although they often are referenced interchangeably by the uninitiated, there is a legal difference in South Carolina between the definitions of so-called “leadership PACs” and what are known as non-candidate committees.
The Palmetto Leadership Council, for example, is widely referred to as a leadership PAC by many S.C. politicos. But under the classification used by the State Ethics Commission, which collects the state’s campaign finance information, the council is a non-candidate committee. In South Carolina, leadership PACs are those which list a public official on a group’s statement of organization.
Such PACs are less common than non-candidate committees, said Cathy Hazelwood, an attorney for the Ethics Commission.
Hazelwood said the language Lucas’ bill would add to state law would only ban candidates from taking direct campaign contributions from leadership PACs, not from non-candidate committees.
A major issue is that state law remains brief and vague on the definition of leadership PACs, leading to confusion.
Lucas said the bill’s goal, with language crafted in part by House staff, is to outlaw direct contributions by both varieties of groups.
He said Friday that he planned to talk with Hazelwood after learning of her interpretation.
An ethics reform study panel formed by Gov. Nikki Haley last month recommended the abolishment of leadership PACs, among other changes to state ethics law. A similar panel composed of House Republicans also recommended the abolishment of leadership PACs. A report outlining the House panel’s suggestions has not yet been made public but has been provided to Republican caucus members, according to a spokesman for the caucus.
Lucas’ proposal is co-sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Delleney of Chester in addition to Harrell.