Comprehensive ethics reform shouldn’t be such a tough pill to swallow, especially when it’s been at the forefront of state politics for years. It’s a debate that’s largely been about transparency, specifically how much legislators are willing to tell us about how they operate. Ideally, there would be as much openness as possible, but that’s obviously not the case.
The most needed shift in Columbia – the creation of a new independent ethics commission – has already come off the table. The creation of the commission would have seen a panel of non-elected officials being tasked with investigating complaints against legislators.
If a legislator was accused of wrongdoing, it would be an independent, likely objective group of individuals determining whether the case has merit. Instead, that idea was scrapped because lawmakers seemingly want to continue to be their own watchdogs.
Under the current setup, ethics committees in the S.C. House and Senate – made up of legislators – investigate such cases. This certainly opens the door for legislators softening the blow for their colleagues accused of wrongdoing.
While the reform package up for debate now packs much less of a punch than lawmakers’ original plans, it does make some important changes. The bill still requires lawmakers to disclose sources of private income, which currently doesn’t happen. That change will thankfully provide more people with information about potential conflicts of interest.
It also closes certain loopholes that allowed independent campaign committees to operate with absolutely no accountability or transparency.
S.C. Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, explained that such groups run TV ads and distribute mailers during election cycles, but “nobody knows who they are and who is funding them.” Previously, there was no stipulation that they had to disclose any information.
While these measures are a step in the right direction, the reform package as a whole still robs the public of the accountability and transparency that should be expected from lawmakers. A comprehensive fix is what was imagined for years. What we appear to be getting is a disappointing Band-Aid that covers what’s most convenient for state lawmakers.
With the passage of the bill by the Senate, it now moves to the S.C. House. It’s imperative that House reps try to give a much stronger bite to the ethics proposal, which unfortunately is unlikely. Furthermore, it’s disheartening, especially since a viable framework for true reform had already been in place.