Fresh momentum for ethics reform

Representative Mary Tinkler sits next to Jim Merrill on the first day of the South Carolina legislative session in Columbia Tuesday January 13, 2015. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

South Carolinians aren’t as interested in ethics as they are in better roads and schools. So declared state Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, at a recent legislative workshop.

“We did not get sent to Columbia to work on ethics enforcement,” Rep. Pope said. “We got sent here to deal with infrastructure and schools and criminal domestic violence.”

There’s something to that, but first things first. Ethics reform is needed to restore trust in the General Assembly, and to help ensure that legislative actions aren’t clouded by self-interest.

As Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday night in her State of the State address: “Reform our ethics laws, restore the public’s faith in our government. Let’s do it right, and let’s do it now.”

Fortunately, there is evidence that representatives and senators are serious about ethics reform, and are moving ahead with proposals in their respective chambers.

Even as legislators look to strengthen ethics rules — which are essential to help ensure that legislators make the right decisions on other issues — there will be a natural reluctance to make things tough on themselves. That’s one reason why previous ethics proposals have been weak on matters like income disclosure and independent review of ethics complaints.

Legislators would do well to consider a strong bill from a newcomer to the legislative process. Rep. Mary Tinkler, D-Charleston, has filed an ethics bill as substantial as anything we’ve seen in recent years.

It would impose term limits for House and Senate members. Limiting representatives to four two-year terms and senators to three four-year terms would put the brakes on overly long legislative careers.

Toward that same end, the bill would create an independent Reapportionment Commission to draw competitive districts.

And it would have legislators treated the same as every other elected official in the state when it comes to independent review of and judicial decision-making on ethics charges. That role would be assumed by the State Ethics Commission.

The bill would require pre-approval for reimbursements from campaign accounts, to forestall improper spending, which was central to ethics complaints against former House Speaker Bobby Harrell and ex-state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston.

Incidentally, Mr. Harrell’s strong showing in the November election was cited in the workshop as evidence of the low public concern about ethics matters. The former speaker of the House garnered nearly 40 percent of the votes in his West Ashley district.

More likely, Mr. Harrell’s showing was evidence of voters in the largely Republican district voting a straight party ticket. After all, Mr. Harrell couldn’t be re-elected, since he’d resigned after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds .

Ms. Tinkler won the election for District 114 with 51 percent of the vote.

Turnover is important for a citizen legislature. New blood means a fresh outlook and new ideas. Rep. Tinkler’s bold ethics proposal is evidence of that.