It will be a monumental failure if South Carolina lawmakers don’t pass ethics reform in the next legislative session.
There seems to be a serious push in Columbia to update our laws governing how public officials operate, even though an ethics bill wasn’t able to get approved in the 2013-2014 session.
Sure, ethics reform always takes a back seat to issues such as creating jobs and upgrading infrastructure – although lawmakers didn’t exactly do anything tremendous there either – but it should remain one of the top priorities heading into the start of the session in January.
South Carolina has certainly been plagued with stories about questionable leadership, particularly as of late.
S.C. Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, speaker of the S.C. House, has been accused of ethics violations. Long-time sheriff of Lexington County James Metts has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of public corruption and accepting bribes. Williamsburg County Sheriff Michael L. Johnson has been indicted on wire fraud.
S.C. State University has become virtually bankrupt, and the chairman of the university’s board, Jonathan Pinson, has been convicted of taking bribes. Winthrop President Jamie Comstock Williamson has been fired for lying to the university’s board and abusing her authority.
Ethics reform should be something embraced by all sides. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. This is a case of South Carolina needing ethical leadership, both in its elected officials and in those appointed to positions of power.
An ethics bill can clearly only go so far. But laws that carry a hard bite when it comes to enforcing responsible behavior can make a difference.
S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor equated having strong ethics laws to the “rules of the road,” noting that if you don’t have harsh penalties, then it’s easy not to follow the rules.
“If they’re doing something wrong, then they need to be outed. Our ethics laws need to be tough. And when I say tough, I mean you better think twice. For instance, would we all stop at the stop sign if we didn’t think we’d get a big ticket and points taken off our license?” Taylor said.
Right now, lawmakers are working with ethics rules that are largely outdated. They haven’t been revisited in more than two decades since being upgraded after Operation Lost Trust in 1990.
The bill that was moved forward in the last legislative session could have been a step forward, but it was also incomplete. The bill, H.3945, which was passed by the S.C. House, would have implemented a number of needed changes, including:
• Creating independent investigations of ethics matters in every branch of government;
• Forcing income disclosures of public officials; and
• Outlawing the existence of “leadership PACS,” which are political organizations that have been criticized for doling out thousands of dollars in campaign cash.
The bill was eventually watered down, and a bipartisan push in the S.C. Senate left it dead on the Senate floor as the legislative session ended in June.
Now lawmakers have to start from scratch on the measure when they return in January since anything that doesn’t get passed at the end of the state’s two-year legislative session gets scrapped.
While there are many in the state that thankfully use political office as an opportunity to improve our state, there are clearly some that only take advantage of their power.
Passing strict ethics laws would certainly be a responsible way to make sure we have people of high caliber representing South Carolina. It’s imperative South Carolina lawmakers finally reach that conclusion and pass legitimate ethics reform next session.