Ethics reform is one of the top priorities for the Legislature in the coming session, and is it ever needed.

The Legislature must provide for independent review of ethics charges brought against legislators. They should be treated the same way as other elected officials - not judged by their colleagues.

And the Legislature should give more teeth to bite those who simply ignore the State Ethics Commission as it attempts to enforce the law. It is shocking to know that candidates for elected office, lobbyists and committees across South Carolina owe nearly $2.5 million for ethics violations. Legislators and legislative candidates owe at least another $275,200.

But more shocking is the nonchalance many assume in dealing - actually not dealing - with their debts.

State Ethics Commission director Herb Hayden said that those who owe his agency "big dollars, they've just thumbed their nose and said, 'I'm not going to pay it.'"

Big dollars can be really big. Five people owe more than $100,000. The largest reported debt is $214,300 owed by a 2008 Richland County school board candidate.

Thirty others, including candidates for local elections and a county political party, owe at least $15,000 apiece.

Most of the fines are imposed because of failure to file disclosure or economic interest forms. Being five days late costs $100 per form. The fines accrue up to $5,000 per form. (There used to be no cap.) That can mean serious money - some would even say unreasonable.

But people are entitled to make appeals to the state Ethics Commission to explain their circumstances and negotiate lower fines. Unfortunately, too many of them don't bother.

That forces the Ethics Commission to send a list of debts to the state Revenue Department, which can garnishee wages or attach tax refunds.

Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, has been chairman of the House Ethics Committee for a year. He says his committee intends to take scofflaws to magistrate's court after staff assesses individual situations.

In a culture concerned about more high-profile white-collar crimes like fraud and embezzlement, some might shrug off a candidate's failure to disclose financial information.

But, like the requirement to file income tax returns and to renew drivers licenses, it's the law. The fact that some elected officials - or those who want to be - so willfully break the law is outrageous.

South Carolina's elected officials - and the people who elect them - need to recognize how far afoul things can go with a who-cares attitude about ethics.

It is imperative that the Legislature put a fair, firm and enforceable system in place to ensure South Carolina is governed by people who adhere to ethical standards.