COLUMBIA — A committee of House and Senate members agreed Tuesday on a bill that would prevent a repeat of the 2012 legal mess that kicked hundreds of candidates off primary ballots.
The compromise approved by a conference committee would synchronize the candidate filing process for incumbents with those seeking to be officeholders. All would have until March 30 to electronically file their financial disclosure forms with the State Ethics Commission.
The measure also would allow those who don’t file properly to pay a fine and remain on the ballot.
“We have fixed the problem,” said Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, a committee member. “There may be political penalties and ethics penalties, but they won’t be removed.”
The House and Senate still must approve the compromise. If they do, the amended bill would head to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.
That would allow legislators to finally check off a bill that both parties and chambers had on their 2013 priority lists. Legislators returned to Columbia in January promising to correct state law that caused about 250 candidates statewide to be booted from primary ballots following back-to-back decisions from the state Supreme Court.
The high court’s rulings in May and June 2012 centered on a 1991 state law requiring those seeking office to turn in a “statement of economic interest” — a form meant to show voters potential conflicts of interest — at the same time they file documents confirming they’re eligible to run. The law exempted incumbents at all government levels, who must annually file the financial disclosure forms by April 15. Legislators said the decades-old law was written that way to avoid duplication in election years.
But it contributed to confusion after a 2010 law required online filing. While the intent was to reduce paperwork, the Legislature didn’t match up separate sections of the law pertaining to annual and candidate filing.
The court ruled that those seeking office still had to hand in the paperwork together, regardless of whether they filed the financial form online. The rulings left many incumbents without a challenger and some open seats with no Republican or Democrat left running, incensing voters and prompting a historic number of “petition” candidates who gained a spot on the ballot through the signature-collection process.
A bill to prevent another such fiasco got off to a quick start, with the Senate passing it the second week of session. But it got bogged down in the House. The conference committee has been trying to hash out differences in the chambers’ separate plans for a month.