S.C. House put ethics reform in fast lane

The South Carolina Statehouse

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House wrapped up January by passing several bills aimed at tackling ethics reform, a breakneck pace compared to the state Senate’s more deliberate approach.

Three bills — which would prohibit lawmakers from operating political action committees, clarify who is bankrolling campaigns and political ads, and create an independent oversight panel for both chambers — passed the House with little opposition.

The bills now head for the Senate, where Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is pushing for quick action on the Senate’s version of ethics reform.

However, some members aren’t happy with the Senate’s omnibus bill that seeks to tackle reform in one package. It was debated for hours on Wednesday, and discussion was halted on Thursday.

Ethics reform is among a raft of problems lawmakers are wrestling with early in the session, as they try to address shortcomings in domestic violence penalties and funding shortfalls for the state’s roads and other cash-strapped agencies.

Swift action in the House is part of a new era under Speaker Jay Lucas, who took over after his predecessor, Bobby Harrell of Charleston, pleaded guilty to misusing campaign contributions for personal benefit.

Since donning the purple robe, Lucas, R-Hartsville, has been pushing for ethics reform, dubbing the day on which the bills cleared hurdles in the House last week as “reform Wednesday.”

“The House has made unprecedented progress in working together to repair the fractured relationship between the public and their elected officials,” Lucas said last week in a written statement. “Although we still have work left to do, I am very proud we are doing our part to make sure that public officials do not receive special treatment when accused of breaking laws.

“By establishing an independent investigation, the public can rest assured that each case will receive unbiased attention. Additionally, we have eliminated the influence of PACs in hopes that politics will become more honest and transparent.”

Part of the accelerated response can be attributed to the House’s decision to tackle ethics issues individually instead of in one potentially cumbersome bill, said Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York.

Pope said the most significant measure that passed the House eliminates the House and Senate Ethics Committees and replaces them with an independent oversight panel appointed by the governor, the Supreme Court and the Legislature.

“It’s about a framework that will hopefully restore the citizens’ trust, and give some predictability,” Pope said. “Independent investigation is a small thing to have for a group that represents citizens.”

Independent investigations, rather than being judged by colleagues, doomed ethics reform in the Senate during the last go-around. Senators ran out the clock of the 2014 legislative session by allowing a senator to remain on the floor filibustering a different bill.

This time, senators are raising the same issues with the Senate’s ethics bill, despite having a sense of urgency to pass legislation, said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston.

“The only question is, how long is it going to take us to do it,” Grooms said. “Things should be moving along a lot faster than they are.”

Martin said he is aware the bill is large. But he hopes it will advance to second reading on Tuesday, so that the Senate can move on to other issues like domestic violence.

“There is an undercurrent in the Senate not to move quickly on anything major,” Martin said. “We always face that, whether its ethics or other issues. But then the same crowd that wants to slow something down will complain that we’re not getting anything done.”

Grooms called Martin’s timeline “overly optimistic.”

“I hear too many members of the Senate that aren’t happy with it,” Grooms said. “I’ve also seen what I believe to be attempts to delay this bill. Every legislative day that goes by will be a day that we don’t get to something.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.