For the public to feel confident that their state legislators are being held to sufficient ethical standards, two key changes must be made. And if lawmakers are to give needed support to those measures, the next several weeks will be critical.
Today, an ad hoc House committee is to begin deliberating how ethics complaints against legislators should be handled. Clearly, the present fox-guarding-the-henhouse procedure, whereby legislators investigate their own, and decide on an outcome, doesn't pass muster. Fair investigations should be done by an independent body of people with the right skills and knowledge to undertake the task.
And on Thursday, the committee will consider how much information elected officials must disclose to the public about their personal and family income. There should be no secrets here. At the least, they should reveal the sources of such income, if not the amounts.
The state's ethics laws need a lot more than these two things, but they are essential. Still, as straightforward as these two issues seem to be, and as soft as they are in some areas, the outlook is hazy.
Just look at the history:
Last year, on the heels of some ethics complaints, Gov. Nikki Haley assembled a bipartisan committee of experts who produced a list of suggestions that, if adopted into law, would make the state's ethics laws much more fair, thorough and unambiguous.
However, the House then came up with its own bill that, while offering some improvements to the status quo, fell short of the governor's plan.
Then the Senate passed its own version of ethics reform, which is so anemic as to suggest that members were really trying to sidestep the whole issue. For example, it fails to provide for independent bodies to either investigate or adjudicate ethics complaints.
It is that bill that an ad hoc committee of the House is discussing in the hope of finding enough common ground with the Senate to advance ethics reform more than a baby step or two. The state certainly needs it.
Ethics laws have not undergone real reform since the 1990s. In the meantime, there have been numerous high profile ethics cases that recommend a higher standard.
Advocates for reform are optimistic that the House has an appetite for independent investigations of ethics complaints. The bill really should provide for independent adjudication of officials after the investigation, but advocates say that's a pipe- dream, given the balky Senate.
It appears that legislators might also balk at disclosing some information about their personal income. Ideally they should reveal the source and amount of any personal or family income.
But legislators indicate they will not support disclosing the amounts, and the public might have to settle for knowing only the sources.
That would be at least an improvement. But it's also instructive to consider the extent to which legislators have backed away from meaningful reform. And continue to do so.
Constituents should question why their legislators don't support stronger ethics reform. Failure to support a meaningful ethics law should figure into their re-election prospects.
Legislators should recognize that state government is not theirs to do with as they please.
They need to be open, honest and accountable to the public, and the state needs ethics laws that will make sure that they are.
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