Senators OK ethics plan with income disclosure

Lawmakers huddle during debate on ethics reform in the S.C. Senate on Wednesday.

COLUMBIA — Less than a week after Gov. Nikki Haley said income disclosure had been killed in the Senate, lawmakers voted for an ethics reform bill that will require public officials to disclose sources of income.

“Well it’s not dead,” Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said Wednesday following a vote on the bill’s second reading.

The 40-1 margin comes a day after senators moved to give the bill, which was sent over from the House of Representatives last year, a priority debate spot. Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, voted against the legislation.

The bill will require everyone who files a statement of economic interest — from the governor to locally appointed boards — to include sources of private income, making potential conflicts of interest transparent, Martin said.

“This is the source, not the amount, so that folks would understand what the potential conflicts might be,” Martin said.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said the bill was “fake” because it did not require public officials to disclose how much income they receive.

“To say that we, this body, the House, the governor, supported an income disclosure bill, when it’s not an income disclosure, it’s just pretending,” he said. “You can pass this and maybe go out and pretend to the public or punch the button or whatever, and say ‘well, we passed income disclosure,’ but that’s not what you passed.”

Sheheen attempted and failed to amend the bill to include requiring the amounts, as well as sources of private income, be disclosed on state documents.

Martin said that because some local public officials may not get much, if any, public income, it could be harmful to make public the amount of money they make — and potentially jeopardize their jobs.

“For that reason, the notion that amounts of income be disclosed, it would be very, very hard to convince a lot of folks to serve if they had to reveal their private income amounts,” Martin said.

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If the House concurs with the amended bill and the governor signs the measure into law, it would not apply until statement of economic interest reports are due in March.

The passage came as senators interrupted debate on another ethics reform bill that would create an outside panel to conduct investigations of lawmakers accused of wrongdoing. Martin tried and failed last week to amend that bill — already in a priority position — which would have included a requirement that legislators disclose outside sources of income.

The amendment was ruled out of order last Thursday due to a technicality. That decision last week by Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster led to a rift with the governor, with Haley accusing McMaster of killing the issue of income disclosure. The governor’s office said it is cautiously optimistic but will watch to see how the bill progresses in the House.

Senators will resume debate on the bill creating third-party investigations Thursday. Martin said he hopes it will pass next week.

The income disclosure bill is expected to receive a perfunctory third reading Thursday and return to the House.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.