COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House on Tuesday passed an ethics reform package that lawmakers of both parties hailed as substantially improving the oversight of politicians and allowing voters to see where candidates get their money.
The bill was approved by a 113-7 vote.
It would require public officials to disclose all sources of their income, including private businesses. It would also end the pre-election blackout period for reporting campaign donations that allows candidates to hide who’s backing their campaigns until after an election.
During the 20-day period before an election, campaigns would have to electronically report the name, address and amount from each donor contributing more than $250.
The electronic report, which is accessible to public viewing online, must be made within 48 hours of receiving the contribution.
“It’s the most significant reform bill since Lost Trust,” said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, referring to the FBI’s 1990 operation that resulted in 27 convictions or guilty pleas of state legislators and lobbyists.
A routine vote today would send the bill to the Senate, meeting a legislative deadline that allows for passage this year.
Legislators have scrambled over the last week to negotiate a compromise that could pass. Tweaks continued even as House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister took the podium to explain his all-encompassing amendment.
In the end, there was little debate on the floor.
Bannister said he worked to keep members from “playing games” with floor amendments that could kill the effort.
“It’s tough and fair. I think it’s a victory for the people of South Carolina,” said Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, who won office last November on an ethics reform platform.
Some critics contend the bill doesn’t go far enough.
Rather than transfer oversight of legislative campaign filings to the state Ethics Commission, it instead creates a joint House-Senate ethics committee composed of eight legislators and eight people they select — with Republicans and Democrats equally represented.
Ashley Landess of the South Carolina Policy Council said the hybrid committee is worse, not better.
“They did nothing to end the self-policing,” she said. “That’s the deal breaker for calling this real reform.”
Currently, separate House and Senate ethics committees handle complaints against their own members.
Even legislators who advocated abolishing the panels said the joint committee represents a better, more independent system than the status quo.
“The bottom line is, what was done today was what was possible,” Smith said. “We didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the possible.”
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