COLUMBIA - A S.C. state senator running for Congress put the brakes on a bill that would have set up new ethics rules governing the state's lawmakers.
The General Assembly was on the cusp of passing its first attempt at ethics reform in 20 years on Thursday when Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, said that senators should wait to vote on the measure so lawmakers could go through the bill. A compromise measure was endorsed by a joint House-Senate committee Wednesday and lawmakers had not had a chance to read the bill, he said. With few hours left in the session, Bright successfully filibustered the measure.
Because the bill is about increasing transparency, Bright said it would be "a travesty . . . for so many of us to vote without the public having any input."
The House passed the compromise measure earlier in the day, 101-12.
"The House is the pulse and the Senate is the brain," Bright said.
Thursday was the last official day of the legislative session. Senators said they plan to vote on the measure when the General Assembly returns for lingering matters on June 17.
The bill does not include an independent investigative committee that Gov. Nikki Haley and others said was key to instilling trust in the process. The House had pushed for such a committee but the Senate rejected it and the compromise version did not include it.
Some senators said a delay was also necessary to gauge whether Haley would veto the bill. Haley answered them on Twitter and Facebook: "...as to whether I support it. Yes I do. So any senators using me as an excuse should sit down, pass the bill, and I will sign it."
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, compared the effort to the sweeping reforms passed in the 1990s after Operation Lost Trust when federal investigators caught lawmakers taking bribes.
"This is right up there with it," Hayes said. "Since that time there's been a number of loopholes that have arisen that needed to be addressed."
The bill requires lawmakers to disclose - for the first time - their sources of income, but not the amounts. The bill also requires groups and Super PACs that spend money on campaigns in South Carolina to disclose their donors and bans so-called Leadership PACs, lawmaker fundraising groups that raise funds and then spend dollars without significant oversight and scrutiny.
The measure also sets up a committee to study what parts of the Ethics Act should contain criminal penalties. As it stands, all violations, inadvertent or not, can be prosecuted as criminal misdemeanors.
The reform initiative comes as ethics investigations have plagued both chambers. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is being investigated by a state grand jury for allegedly using campaign funds for personal use, including funds that paid for office-related trips on his personal airplane.
Former Sen. Robert Ford, R-Charleston, resigned in 2013 after revelations that he bought adult toys and other items using funds allocated for his campaign or office use. Last month, the Senate Ethics Committee hammered former state Sen. Robert Ford with nearly $45,000 in fines for ethics violations.
Critics have blasted the reform effort, saying that lawmakers have stumbled to address the ethics issue from the beginning. The measure passed Thursday, for example, may expand the use of campaign dollars for office uses, the subject of much controversy. "I'm having trouble imagining what they couldn't be spent on," said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, of the expanded definition.
Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, said that critics needed to see the good in the bill. "The critics who say we didn't do anything (are) just flatly wrong," he said.
Harrell at a press conference called the reforms "historic" and echoed the Ronald Reagan quip that it's better to get some of what you want and come back for the rest later.
"This bill does have a lot that moves the ball forward," Harrell said.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.
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