S.C. House Republicans quietly file major ethics reform bill
COLUMBIA — S.C. House Republicans have quietly filed a wide-ranging ethics reform bill. The proposal follows a series of meetings earlier this year by a GOP committee studying ethics changes in the wake of a series of high-profile Statehouse ethical scandals. But despite the major focus on possible ethics reforms during the ongoing legislative session, the new bill by Cayce GOP Rep. Kenny Bingham, has received little publicity since its introduction last week.
The legislation has a cadre of Republican co-sponsors, but they don’t yet include key House GOP leaders: House Speaker Bobby Harrell, House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister and Rep. Murrell Smith of Sumter, who served as the chairman of the ethics study group.
The reason House Republicans haven’t trumpeted the proposal is because the caucus isn’t yet sure whether Bingham’s proposal will end up being the caucus’ only wide-ranging ethics reform bill, said caucus spokesman Jason Zacher.
Zacher said the House GOP could introduce a separate bill soon or build on Bingham’s legislation.
Tyler Jones, a spokesman for House Democrats, said none of the caucus’ members have had the chance to review the bill yet because it was dropped so quietly.
Bingham, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said it was time for a reform bill to be introduced.
“I just felt like it was time to move forward,” he said.
Daniel Island GOP Rep. Jim Merrill, a co-sponsor of the bill, expressed similar sentiments, saying he doesn’t support all aspects of the proposal but it needed to get to a committee so work can begin.
The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislation would, among other things, revamp the State Ethics Commission.
The overhaul would grant the House and Senate the power to make two appointments each to the commission and leave four appointments to the governor.
Currently, the governor appoints all members of the nine-member commission.
Under Bingham’s bill, the revamped commission would initially receive and process complaints against the executive and legislative branches. Currently, the House and Senate ethics committees receive and investigate complaints against their chamber’s members.
But Bingham’s legislation would strip the ethics committees of their investigatory power, instead placing it with a new “Public Integrity Unit” first proposed by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
The new unit would pool the resources of several existing offices.
Bingham’s bill proposes that the unit conduct investigations of complaints if the State Ethics Commission deems them founded.
Gov. Nikki Haley hopes to draw attention to the new legislation.
The first-term Republican’s staff Wednesday morning dropped off a letter from the governor backing the bill on each House member’s desk.
In the letter, Haley thanked Bingham and co-sponsors of the proposal and urged House members to pass ethics reforms this year.
Bingham’s proposal would make over the State Ethics Commission. Haley created a separate ethics reform commission that in January released a report calling for a series of ethics law changes. House Democrats also convened their own ethics study group, and could file legislation. Senators convened a bipartisan reform group, and a series of reform bills already have been filed in the upper chamber.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.