COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley called on legislators Tuesday to get a bill strengthening the state’s weak ethics laws to her desk, saying elected officials need to prove to voters that they work for them.
“We need to show the people of the world we don’t have issues in South Carolina, that we’re not afraid of ethics reform, and we’re going to pass a strong ethics reform bill this year,” Haley said while surrounded by 14 Republican senators, the current attorney general, and the co-chairmen of her ethics study committee: former attorneys general Travis Medlock, a Democrat, and Henry McMaster, a Republican.
With just three weeks to go in the session, time is running out on the reform bill that legislators in both chambers and parties called a top priority before session started. The House, Senate and independent panel Haley created worked separately in the off-session on their plans.
But progress has been slow.
The House barely met a legislative deadline when it passed its version May 1. Senators can’t take up its amended version, advanced to the floor less than two weeks ago, until they finish their budget debate, which is entering its second week.
“It’s time to stay and get the job done,” Haley said. “Finish the budget and move right on to ethics.”
Even if the Senate passes the bill soon, the House and Senate would still need to hash out differences in their plans. Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin insisted there’s still time.
Attorney General Alan Wilson said if legislators can’t finish their work, they’re sending a signal that ethics reform isn’t a priority.
“My fear is the politics of other issues and other debates have bled over to stifle ethics reform from taking place in the state,” said the Republican attorney general, who worked to get into the ethics proposal the creation of a multi-agency, public integrity unit to investigate ethics charges.
Other provisions in the bill include requiring legislators to disclose all of their income sources, eliminating the loophole that allows groups to spend money on elections without identifying themselves or their donors, and changing who handles ethics complaints against legislators. Differences in the latter are bound to be a sticking point for any compromise.
Haley faulted Democrats for dragging out debate, but Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said Democrats support ethics reform and aren’t holding up anything. He noted the Senate Judiciary Committee only recently advanced the bill, after an eight-hour meeting.
He also said Haley didn’t invite any Democratic legislators to her news conference, politicizing an issue she said shouldn’t be partisan.
Haley can’t lead on ethics reform, he said, since she’s the reason for the effort.
The House Ethics Committee twice cleared Haley last year of accusations she illegally lobbied for two former employers while a member of the House. The second time, legislators explained their votes by citing ambiguity in the law and promised to push for reform. Months later, Haley toured the state calling for reform, saying weak and gray aspects of the law need clarified.
“Having her lead this charge is sort of like having Barry Bonds call for stronger drug testing,” Hutto said. “There’s nothing, nothing, nothing about ethics reform that didn’t originate because she failed to do something on her own.”
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey called Hutto’s comments an example of Senate Democrats “trying to said or do anything to stop major ethics reforms.”
“Sen. Hutto knows full well that the governor was cleared of all the trumped up claims against her,” Godfrey said. “The governor wants every legislator to disclose their income. The question is why do Sen. Hutto and other Senate Democrats oppose that?”
One of the charges on which Haley was cleared was failure to disclose her consulting work on ethics forms for an engineering firm with state contracts. She successfully argued nothing in state law required her to do so.
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