Ethics reform, bait-and-switch
house members might have corrected one major shortcoming in its ethics reform bill on Thursday, but they quickly created another. After promising independent oversight of legislative ethics complaints, legislators suddenly switched course and endorsed a plan for a legislative ethics committee with half of its members chosen from House and Senate.
Legislators did restore criminal penalties for serious ethics violations that they said were inadvertently deleted.
The new legislative ethics panel included in the revised bill might be better than the separate House and Senate ethics committees that currently adjudicate ethics complaints against their colleagues in their respective chambers. But it is certainly not as good as the initial plan of having legislators report to the State Ethics Commission.
All other elected officials in South Carolina have to go before the State Ethics Commission. So should state lawmakers.
The new committee would have 16 members, including eight legislators and eight non-legislators, all chosen by the Legislature.
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, was candid about the reason for the shift. Legislative opposition to the proposal requiring legislators to go before the State Ethics Commission threatens approval of the larger ethics reform bill in the House.
Or to put it another way, a majority of House members apparently aren’t willing to support truly independent oversight. They want a special deal, better than that for other elected officials — even the governor.
It’s time for a major ethics overhaul by the South Carolina Legislature, but this provision hardly qualifies. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking toward the deadline for legislative action this year.
At least there’s one good reason for the latest delay in having the bill considered by the full House. It will give representatives the opportunity to actually read the proposed bill over the weekend.
That should avoid further complications as House members get ready for a last-ditch effort to advance the bill to the Senate before time runs out this session.
Doing the bill on the fly already has caused some red faces in the House, after it was learned that ethics violations listed in the bill had been decriminalized. Legislative watchdogs contended it was an attempt to reduce penalties while otherwise tightening rules.
But House supporters of the bill said it was simply an inadvertent mistake. The decriminalization aspect of the bill, they said, was meant only to apply to minor technical violations, such as being late in filing.
But there was nothing inadvertent about the effort to put legislators on the committee.
There are commendable aspects to the ethics bill, including stronger disclosure rules and independent investigation of ethics violations.
But the substantive change in the makeup of the committee that actually handles ethics complaints weakens the bill and will erode public confidence.
If the Legislature is serious about ethics reform, it should be willing to take the same medicine as every other elected official in South Carolina.