Statehouse lobby (copy) (copy)

Lobbyists, lawmakers and staffers mingle in the Statehouse. File/Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — Another year, another lack of movement on ethics reform in the S.C. Legislature.

Despite a years-long investigation into Statehouse corruption, lawmakers still did not approve or even seriously consider new laws to strengthen the state's ethics requirements this year.

The inaction continued even though some lawmakers opened the 2018 session with optimism that recent indictments in the corruption probe would prompt their colleagues to take up more stringent measures, with several proposals being put forward.

Yet for much of the session, particularly in the all-important first few weeks in the House, the failure of a $9 billion nuclear construction project dominated much of the attention and activity.

"The fact that we devoted so much time to the SCANA issues, I think that was the thing that really inhibited a number of bills from moving forward," said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Clemson. "And the farther you get away from the incidents that highlighted the ethical problems, people in the Legislature tend to have very short memories."

The pile of legislation that languished in committee included bills that would have: required lawmakers to disclose any money they received from an organization with lobbyists at the Statehouse; given the ethics commission direct access to campaign bank accounts and the authority to obtain lawmakers' tax returns; and shed light on "dark money" groups that seek to influence elections but don't disclose their donors.

Part of the issue, Clary said, is that voters often say they are concerned about corruption and want more stringent ethics laws but end up voting on other high priority issues. As a result, lawmakers feel less pressure to act because their reelection is not at risk.

Some legislators remain optimistic that ethics efforts could stand a better chance as newer members climb the ranks. The expected new Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, said he hopes to give proposed changes more open consideration.

"Ethics reform is absolutely going to be a priority to me," McCoy said. "We've taken some small steps on ethics reform but there needs to be much greater reform when it comes to income disclosure and all those kinds of things. There's a lot we need to work on."

For now, though, the ongoing inertia has frustrated reform-minded lawmakers. Year after year, ethics issues have often proven to be the first to drop off the legislative radar when other problems arise.

"Unfortunately, we only seem to take action in this state after some horrible major event," said state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville. "But how many lawmakers have to be indicted before we begin to take this seriously?" 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.