COLUMBIA - Lawmakers would have to disclose the sources of their income and potentially face stiffer penalties for ethics violations under a compromise ethics reform package that passed the S.C. Senate on Thursday.
Critics say that senators stripped too many key provisions from the bill, but Senate leaders praised the work of their colleagues for agreeing to reforms that have taken years to gain traction.
Some senators also cautioned that in the day-long debate, in which dozens of amendments were considered, some items may change as the bill is drafted. The debate is also far from over. The S.C. House will take it up next, and members of that chamber are expected to make changes as well.
The Senate bill also bans so-called Leadership Political Action Committees, which many have said are abused. Secretive outside groups that spend money on issues and advocacy related to campaigns also would have to divulge their sources of funds.
The bill requires disclosure of the source but not the amount that lawmakers make from their employers. The Senate had also stripped a framework for a new, independent commission to investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers, which some have called key to fixing what some view as a broken system.
"This reminds me of what happened over 20 years ago," said Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Columbia, referring to sweeping ethics reforms in the 1990s after the Operation Lost Trust scandal caught South Carolina lawmakers taking bribes. He addressed groups that have pushed for reform: "We cannot legislate morality. People have value systems when they come here."
He said he believed the Senate measure had made penalties more severe and broad to deter legislators from ethics violations.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley had called on senators to reinstate an independent body to investigate lawmakers. She and others believe that the practice of lawmakers investigating and ruling on members of their own body is ineffective and can cause a conflict of interest.
"The legislators need to understand ... this is not about what's convenient to them," Haley told reporters earlier in the week. After the vote, Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said it wasn't what the governor had hoped for.
"Let's be clear, what the Senate passed tonight wasn't ethics reform," Mayer said in an emailed statement. "It's an income disclosure bill, and while that's a positive step forward, it's really only a half-step. The Senate's failure to include independent investigations is just another glaring example of some legislators believing that it's acceptable for the fox to continue guarding the henhouse and it's now up to the House to correct that mistake."
Senators did strengthen certain provisions, including stiffening penalties. Lawmakers who benefit from their position to the tune of more than $10,000, either in dollars or other economic benefits, can be subject to a felony charge instead of a misdemeanor.
The debate on the Senate floor turned into a free-for-all on a range of ethics-related issues. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, hoped to force lawyer-legislators to recuse themselves from votes on judges' positions, a premise that was soundly rejected by a body that has many lawyers in it. Bright is one of four challengers expected to face U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in the June GOP primary.
Calls for lawmakers to disclose the amounts of their income and their real-estate holdings, and the ability of lawmakers to appoint campaign donors to boards and commissions, were also rejected. Senators had also rejected calls to restrict the use of campaign funds for office uses.
The issue comes at a time when Haley has faced her own ethics questions, and members of both chambers have faced scrutiny for potential ethics violations. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is being investigated by a state grand jury for alleged misuse of campaign funds, and former Sen. Robert Ford, R-Charleston, resigned after revelations that he bought adult toys and other items using funds allocated for his campaign or office use.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said that he was "thrilled" with the compromise. "The overall package I think is pretty strong. We just weren't able to get everything. The independent investigation ... that's something we can come back to another day, but I do think the Senate is doing a pretty good job of policing its members."
Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837 or on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.