COLUMBIA - A joint House-Senate ethics committee began initial discussion Tuesday on a sweeping ethics reform bill as lawmakers try to beat the clock to get a bill passed before the end of the legislative session this week.
The two versions setting up new rules for lawmakers' conduct vary widely, and both sides said they would talk to their colleagues to get a sense of what each body is willing to give.
The House version establishes a 12-member independent commission that would be able to investigate members of each branch for ethics infractions. That body would investigate ethics-related allegations in all three branches of government, but disciplinary decisions would be left up to the current bodies that decide those matters. The bill places restrictions on appointing campaign donors and family members to that committee.
The House bill reconstitutes the State Ethics Commission, which oversees executive branch officials, including the governor. As it stands, all nine members of the commission are appointed by the governor, but the House bill would spread appointees among other statewide offices.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, who chairs the joint ethics panel empowered to come to a compromise between the two bodies, said that the independent commission was likely a non-starter with much of the Senate. The Senate already rejected the concept when it passed its version of ethics reform earlier this year.
He said he was focused on a potential compromise including what he calls the "big three" issues: assuring lawmakers disclose their sources of income; requiring groups and Super PACs that spend money on campaigns in South Carolina to disclose their donors; and banning so-called Leadership PACs, lawmaker fundraising groups that raise funds and then spend dollars without the oversight and scrutiny of campaign funds.
"We'll have a bill and hopefully have the votes to pass it," Hayes said.
Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, who is on the joint committee, said he would poll members of the Republican caucus Tuesday to see what was possible.
"If the independent investigation committee is a non-starter (with the Senate) do we want to go forward?" Bannister said. "I'd like to see us do something."
Critics have already knocked the bill for its failure to ban or limit the use of campaign funds for office uses, a source of much controversy recently. The House bill also allows some sources of income for lawmakers and family members to remain out of public view, something advocates say could provide future loopholes.
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