It has taken over 20 years to get here, but South Carolina is finally in a position to pass major ethics reforms. And we can get it done in the General Assembly this week.
We haven’t had significant improvements in our ethics laws since 1991.
Think about all that has happened since then — the developments in technology, the changes in the tax code, the differences in how we communicate with each other. While the world has moved forward, South Carolina’s ethics laws have remained stuck in the past. While other states have moved ahead, South Carolina received an “F” on the Corruption Risk Report Card from the Center for Public Integrity.
That is not acceptable to the people of our state.
A solution exists. As scheduled, the ethics reform bill is on the calendar to be debated and voted on in the South Carolina Senate this morning. The bill requires legislators to show exactly who pays them, to disclose conflicts of interest, and to require accountability in the process to avoid corruption.
Like all good legislation, this bill has many parents.
House and Senate leaders have made clear from even before the start of session that ethics reform was a top priority, and they have moved the ball forward.
Last October, I appointed a bipartisan commission of experts from the fields of law enforcement, journalism, and ethics, co-chaired by former Attorneys General Henry McMaster and Travis Medlock. They made strong and smart recommendations on improving our ethics laws. In addition, this bill is a culmination of provisions vetted in earlier bills in the House and Senate.
By any measure, there has been ample time to assess the various ideas and amendments associated with this issue.
The bill that passed the House wasn’t perfect, but it was miles better than the status quo. Many leaders in the Senate are truly dedicated to passing ethics reform. But, as always, there are those who will stand in the way of progress, and there is risk that a minority of senators will kill the ethics bill this week.
Our state has been in this position before, so close to achieving historic reforms supported by the overwhelming majority of South Carolinians, only to fall short in the closing days of a legislative session. The Senate’s treatment of the ethics bill bears some of the hallmarks of that bad movie. Delays, filibusters, vote changes, excuses, and then “oops, we really were all for this bill, but we just ran out of time.”
They trot out the same tired arguments that we’ve heard before.
To those who say we need more time before fixing our ethics laws, I say we’re already about 10 years too late. To those who say South Carolinians don’t care about ethics issues, I say you need to spend more time getting around the state. To those who would rob us of cleaner and better government out of pursuit of political or personal agendas, I say you are helping neither yourself nor the people you represent.
We must not let that happen this time. Ethics reform should not be a partisan issue. The people of our state, regardless of their political party, want stronger ethics laws. They deserve to have confidence that their public officials are free of conflicts of interest and are being held to the highest possible standards of conduct.
Make no mistake, now is the time. Unlike almost any other piece of major legislation, there is real momentum in the General Assembly to get it done. We must take advantage of this unique opportunity and pass ethics reform this year. And our legislators can do it.
Is our Legislature for true ethics reform or not? We will find out this week.
Nikki Haley, a Republican, is governor of South Carolina.