COLUMN: Ethics bill ‘surprise’ shouldn’t have surprised anyone

  • Posted: Friday, April 26, 2013 7:20 a.m.

COLUMBIA — The only thing that wasn’t predictable about the discovery that the House Judiciary Committee passed an ethics “reform” bill last week that decriminalized ethics violations was the specific discovery.

Even under ideal circumstances, changes to our state ethics law are treacherous, because the law is fraught with double and triple negatives and substantive law written into definitions and other traps that await even the closest reviewer; surprises are inevitable.

And there was nothing ideal about the circumstances surrounding H.3945, which seemed to have sprung fully formed last week from Zeus’ brow.

After failing for more than half the session even to introduce their proposal on legislators’ top to-do item, House leaders rolled out a place-holder bill on April 11 that contained nothing but the bill title. They scheduled a subcommittee meeting for the next legislative day, last Tuesday, where House Republican Leader Bruce Bannister, who chairs the Constitutional Law Subcommittee, handed members of his panel a summary and a 100-page amendment that would become the bill.

Panel members discussed the items on the summary – decriminalization was not on the list – made some changes and approved the bill before they had a chance to read it. (It took me nearly three hours to do what I consider a cursory reading.) The process repeated the next day in the full Judiciary Committee, whose members also made changes without having time to read the bill. The text of the bill wasn’t posted online until Thursday evening, seven hours after the committee formally reported it to the House.

Although it’s common for the amended version of a bill not to be available until the next step in the process, I can’t recall a bill ever making it to full committee, much less the full House, before some version was available.

The process was so confusing that Rep. James Smith, a Democrat who serves on the subcommittee, told me Thursday morning that the bill increased penalties for the worst ethics violations. The next day, he called to say he was outraged to discover he was wrong – and to promise to lead a fight to restore them. GOP Rep. Rick Quinn, who also serves on the subcommittee, emailed me an amendment he planned to offer that would do what both men had thought the bill did – increase the current criminal penalties.

Although decriminalization is the biggest problem, it isn’t the only evidence that the bill was insufficiently vetted. It significantly increases campaign contribution limits (staff acknowledges this was an error). It establishes a deadline for ethics complaints that would have prevented action on the one filed last year against Gov. Nikki Haley. It requires people who aren’t paid and don’t spend more than $500 a year and people who only speak at public hearings to register as lobbyists if they represent an organization; that means they would have to pay a fee and lose the right to make campaign donations or serve on state boards. And in the section that is supposed to expand the definition of conflicts of interest, the bill actually contracts the definition, by removing an “or.”

The S.C. Policy Council’s Ashley Landess, Common Cause’s John Crangle and other watchdogs are convinced that House leaders were trying to sneak a bad bill into law – and free House Speaker Bobby Harrell from the possibility that any criminal charges could result from an ongoing SLED investigation into his campaign spending. Perhaps so, although it’s mind-boggling that anyone would believe they could get away with such a monumental fraud.

What’s clear is that this demonstrates the folly of writing laws in secret and trying to rush through complicated legislation.

As their majority has grown, it has become standard operating procedure for House Republicans to work out their proposals in secret and then push them through the House with little debate and no changes. And this isn’t the first time they’d pulled this sort of high-wire act, springing their backroom deals on the House as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal; it’s just the first time it has backfired so badly.

Last year, Harrell kept the Senate’s Department of Administration bill on the House calendar for more than two months while he worked behind the scenes on a rewrite, rather than sending it to committee for a public debate; when he finished, he rolled it out on the floor of the House for an immediate up-or-down vote. Four years ago, Ways and Means Chairman Dan Cooper and Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman crafted a budget compromise in secret rather than send the House and Senate bills to conference committee for public negotiations.

Reps. Smith and Quinn acknowledged that they shouldn’t have been party to such a rush job last week. They said they didn’t want to risk missing the May 1 deadline for the bill to clear the House if it is to have any chance of passing the Senate this year.

The House does need to meet that deadline – assuming it can fix the problems with the bill. But let’s not pretend that this was an unavoidable situation.

Lawmakers wouldn’t have been under such time pressure if House leaders had introduced their bill earlier, rather than wasting their time on less important legislation. That would include anything other than this and the bill to abolish the Budget and Control Board – another extraordinarily complicated measure that the subcommittee took up for the first time, and passed, on Thursday morning.

We can only hope that bill doesn’t have as many surprises as the ethics bill.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an associate editor with The State newspaper in Columbia.

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