COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley and state House Speaker Jay Lucas are prodding senators into reviving ethics reform after the Senate brought what had been touted as the legislative session’s No. 1 priority to a screeching halt.
Lucas expects the House this week to pass a so-called “omnibus” ethics bill combining several ethics-related measures that already have passed into one package to send to the Senate.
Haley has been urging lawmakers publicly and privately to reconsider an ethics bill with a way to ensure that alleged wrongdoing by lawmakers is investigated independently, not by the lawmakers themselves. As it stands, ethics committees in both the House and Senate are responsible for policing their own members’ conduct.
The governor and Lucas have said they hope senators realize that the issue will not simply go away.
Ethics came to a head last year when former House Speaker Bobby Harrell resigned and pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds for personal expenses. Advocates have said the Harrell case exposed flaws in the system because the House Ethics Committee, made up of his fellow lawmakers, never took up allegations of abuse.
Lucas said the smaller bites at ethics reform the House has already passed is still his preferred method, so it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. But the slow-moving Senate has expressed concerns about whether passing that many bills is feasible, and Lucas said he doesn’t want to see them use that as an excuse.
“I think the citizens of this state are looking for us to deal with the issue of ethics given the problems that we’ve not only had within the Statehouse, but all around the state with various units of government,” he said, referring to sheriffs and others that have been prosecuted recently.
Haley wrote a letter signed by her, the League of Women Voters, AARP and the Coastal Conservation League calling on senators to take up ethics again and endorse a panel that would independently investigate elected officials.
“Our constituents care deeply about ethics reform because it is the heart of good government,” the letter says. “In order for South Carolina to deal successfully with the multitude of challenges we face ... the Legislature must commit to conducting business with the utmost integrity.”
But senators may not be as eager as Haley and Lucas to see ethics come up again this session.
Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, offered what he billed as a compromise amendment early last month that would have placed members of the Legislature on the committee responsible for investigating lawmakers. When his amendment passed, sponsors of the original measure, including Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, fought against what they considered to be a poison pill. Ultimately, Rankin’s amendment and Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s opposition swung the momentum and the bill was defeated.
Leatherman questioned whether ethics reform is even necessary, saying the problem with self-policing is in the House, not the Senate.
Martin’s bill would have formed an eight-member committee to oversee elected official’s conduct, with four appointed by the Legislature and four by the governor. He and others said Rankin’s amendment to include lawmakers on the investigative committee would have been a step backward.
Rankin said he is satisfied with the compromise he already offered. “While (ethics) is an issue with some, more people in my district and across the state continue to ask about fixing our crumbling roads and bridges, educating our young people,” he said in an email.
Rankin also referred to the recent surprise withdrawal of Department of Health and Environmental Control nominee Eleanor Kitzman after a contentious confirmation hearing as a reason why the governor’s appointees should not be involved.
“Last week’s DHEC director drama has many questioning anew why the governor or her appointees should control this new body,” Rankin said. “It’s time to move on and address issues that truly affect all of our citizens’ everyday lives, and not our agendas or political campaigns.”
Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams shot back in a statement and asked whether Rankin had something to hide. “Another day, another reason Sen. Rankin finds to protect the status quo — legislators overseeing the actions of their friends and colleagues, and doing so in secret,” she said.
Martin said senators were surprised when he and others voted against their own measure with Rankin’s amendment included. He said he detects some shift among senators on the issue and hopes there will be a consensus to debate ethics again sometime in the next two weeks.
He said he plans to remind his colleagues they are up for re-election next year.
“We cannot go through this session and not pass a bill,” Martin said. “I really believe we’re inviting trouble if we think we can cloak ourselves in this notion of ‘well, ... the public isn’t that interested.’ I don’t think that’s going to play very well next year.”
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.