SC Republicans mull changes in ethics rules

  • Friday, February 15, 2013

It was a very busy week in Columbia as the rubber hit the road on a number of important issues facing the General Assembly.

First up, a House Judiciary subcommittee opened the debate on two bills that will block the implementation of Obamacare in the state. This is a Republican Caucus agenda item, and something that Republican voters told Republican candidates they wanted in no unspecific terms last November.

A packed house of concerned conservatives came to the meeting in support of one of the two bills. Republican Rep. Tommy Pope of York County laid out his party’s Caucus position concisely when he said: “The Republican Caucus will oppose Obamacare in any way we can. We’re trying to figure out the Constitutional way to do so.” That debate will continue since the committee ran out of time for all of the speakers. No vote was taken on either bill this week.

The House gave strong, bi-partisan approval to shortening the legislative session by nearly two months. The 91-9 vote on the constitutional amendment sends the bill to the Senate. If approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate, it would go to the voters for approval in November 2014. We have worked for 20 years to shorten the legislative session – which would save taxpayer money by forcing the General Assembly to work more efficiently. Since this is ultimately an issue about sending the question to the voters, we hope the Senate will act quickly.

Finally, the House Caucus Ethics Reform Study Committee gave its findings to the Republican Caucus. The full report included four pages of bullet points, so I’ll summarize the major points in the space I have left.

First, the committee recommends amending the State Constitution to create an independent commission from both the legislative and executive branches of government to investigate all complaints against public officials.

As the Constitutional amendment is moving through the process, the committee recommends establishing a Public Integrity Unit comprised of Attorney General, Chief of SLED, director of the Department of Revenue, the executive Director of the Ethics Commission and the State Inspector General. This unit will report facts for the commission to adjudicate in the same way SLED will investigate for the state solicitors.

If the Constitutional amendments are approved, it will abolish the House and Senate ethics committees and end the practice of the House and Senate “policing themselves.” Until that amendment is approved, they will continue to adjudicate their bodies based on the findings of the Public Integrity Unit.

Next, the committee recommended these reforms of the Ethics Reform Act:

Require the disclosure of private income sources as a component of the annual Statement of Economic Interest filed by all public officials.

Abolish “Leadership PACs.”

Enhance both the level and number of penalties available to the Ethics Commission for violations of the Ethics Act.

Expand the definition of “lobbyist” to include parties who appear before counties and municipalities thereby triggering the requirement that they register with the state commission and are subject to the same restrictions as lobbyist who appear on the state level.

Require that recusal on a matter extends to committee and subcommittee votes.

Require lobbyists to disclose all income received from lobbyist principals for all services rendered.

Define “economic interest” to include not only economic benefit but also the avoidance of loss.

Numerous new requirements and restrictions about public officials’ financial relationships with state and local governments as well as companies with lobbying interests.And finally, the committee endorsed several change to the Freedom of Information Act, specifically endorsing the legislation filed by Rep. Bill Taylor (H. 3163). The General Assembly will be debating ethics reform over the next few months. This is an important issue since our ethics laws have not been substantively changed since the creation of the Internet.

(Representative Mike Sottile (R) represents the area in the S.C. State House of Representatives. Mike Sottile can be contacted at Isle of Palms at 886-8759, in Columbia at 803-212-6880 or via email to mikesottile@schouse.gov.)

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