COLUMBIA - Legislators returned to their districts last week empty-handed when it came to ethics reform.
The bill's death was a blow to many lawmakers who pushed for a vote on the measure, arguing it was best to vote on a compromise than to not update the law, especially after concerted efforts through the two-year session.
The Lowcountry's lawmakers were divided on why the measure saw its demise.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said there were a number of senators who felt they shouldn't be dragged into a problem that's going on at the House of Representatives. The House Ethics Committee, Grooms said, simply doesn't act as swiftly as the Senate's. A Senate investigation into then-Sen. Robert Ford's alleged misuse of campaign funds led Ford to resign last year before the committee's investigation came to a close.
Meanwhile, it took months for the House Ethics Committee to fine Rep. Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, for improper expenses. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is in the midst of a legal battle with Attorney General Alan Wilson on whether Wilson has the authority to investigate allegations that Harrell was using his campaign funds for personal use.
"So there's a group of senators that feel, 'If the problem is not with us, then why should we be caught up in this,' " Grooms said. "There are a number of senators that believe in income disclosure. Let's add in the hypocrisy of some groups who preach income disclosure from lawmakers, but who refuse to let anybody else see their books."
The groups Grooms alludes to are those like the S.C. Policy Council, which, along with several others, has been calling for ethics reform for years.
But the group's president, Ashley Landess, says the General Assembly deliberately created a "gigantic bill" that did nothing to address what she called a "concentration of power and secrecy in Columbia," and the bill instead tweaked campaign laws to protect lawmakers. Transparency, she said, is for government.
"What they don't want is any criticism," Landess said. "They were never working on what we wanted done and what we all know needs to be done."
The measure would've required groups such as the Policy Council to disclose their donors under the premise that the organizations conduct lobbying and electioneering. But Landess argued the council does no such thing, and that the bill simply aimed to prevent groups like hers from criticizing lawmakers.
One of many other issues with the measure was that it was not as simplistic as it was being portrayed, said Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston. Gov. Nikki Haley pushed for independent oversight, but some lawmakers noted that Haley would have appointed the majority of the members of the committee.
"You still have issues with separation of powers," Merrill said. "There seems to be some politics at play."
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said Haley's intense involvement with the bill polarized the measure. There were a lot of hidden discussions on all sides, which led to personalizing the issue as well, Gilliard said.
"This session alone Governor Haley was able to sign into law the most important restructuring and education reforms in decades, so the results suggest she works quite well with the Legislature," said Haley spokesman Doug Mayer. "As to ethics reform, it failed because legislators didn't want to disclose their income or stop policing themselves - nothing more, nothing less."
Gilliard said prioritizing ethics over homelessness, education, and domestic violence - among others of the state's ills - was wrong, and that it was a sign of poor leadership on Haley's behalf.
"The governor had something personal against our speaker," Gilliard said. "She didn't have that type of honesty or leadership to say, 'I'm after certain people.' We could've taken care of this in another manner."
Harrell said he's heard Haley has something against him before and that it wouldn't surprise him; but he said he doesn't know if it's true. The two don't speak much, he said. And when it comes to day-to-day legislation, Harrell learns of Haley's thoughts along with the rest of the public - online.
"That's why things fail," Harrell said. "You accomplish things by pulling people together and working with them, and Nikki Haley simply doesn't do that."
Now lawmakers have to start from scratch with ethics reform when they return in January. Legislation in South Carolina has a two-year life span. Anything that doesn't get done by the end of the cycle gets scrapped.
"All this conversation that 'this wasn't in it and that wasn't in it' is a red herring," Harrell said. "The reality is that they didn't want to get the bill passed. And I am incredibly frustrated because while this bill was not perfect, it had a lot of good things in it that have died because of a lack of leadership, particularly out of the governor's office."
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