2 priorities to face S.C. Senate test

COLUMBIA — Ethics reform and domestic violence, two of this year’s top priorities for the General Assembly, face a key early test this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers proposed legislation.

The two Senate bills take up perhaps the thorniest issues lawmakers will deal with this year: overhauling laws concerning elected officials’ conduct and stiffer penalties for battering a spouse or partner. Both bills are sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who said he expects the hearing to be held Tuesday.

Last year, a dozen measures to combat domestic violence died in the Legislature, but this session could be different, with state leaders, including Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson, embracing the effort.

Perhaps the most contentious provision in either bill is a proposal to strip gun rights from anyone convicted of domestic violence. Martin said he hopes his colleagues will see that the gun provision is common sense.

“Over two-thirds of folks who were killed ... are usually killed with a gun,” Martin said. “So that’s the weapon of choice and that’s what this is all about, to try to bring down our death rate. It’s not to punish people beyond sentence. It’s an attempt to address South Carolina’s chronic position as a leader in the nation in killing women in a domestic violence situation.”

Federal law already bans those convicted of domestic violence from buying or possessing guns, but South Carolina doesn’t have its own legislation to enforce the ban.

Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, one of the most strident voices in the Senate on Second Amendment issues, said the state shouldn’t enforce the gun ban. He said it could penalize battered women, as well, if they are charged with domestic violence for trying to defend themselves.

“I know it’s well-intentioned,” Bright said of the gun ban. “(But) that means that (person) can’t protect herself. I’m not comfortable taking someone’s right to defend themselves over a case like that. If you’re a free man, you should have your constitutional rights.”

The push for reform follows the Post and Courier’s “Till Death Do Us Part” series, which revealed that more than 300 women died in domestic violence in South Carolina over the past decade while the state did little to remedy the problem.

On ethics, Martin said he expects a lot of scrutiny over requiring lawmakers to disclose their private sources of income. The bill also moves oversight of ethics complaints to an independent panel, something senators have objected to in the past.

Haley used her inaugural speech last week to decry the ethics scandals that plagued the Statehouse during her first four years in office and rebuke lawmakers for not doing more to restore the public’s faith in government.

House and Senate leaders have vowed to enact strong ethics reforms after former House Speaker Bobby Harrell pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds and resigned in October. Former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and former state Sen. Robert Ford also have pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds for personal expenses. Ford’s plea came the same day as Haley’s inauguration.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.