A look at SC House’s ethics reform bill

  • Thursday, May 2, 2013

The House approved dozens of pieces of legislation last week in advance of the “crossover” deadline on May 1. The most important piece of legislation was a major reform package to our two-decade old ethics laws.

The House Republican Caucus, the House Democratic Caucus and the governor’s office each had study committees into the matter. All of the committees shared information and ideas over the past six months.

The Republican Caucus and the governor each submitted final reports of what each would like to see in the law. Dozens of meetings were held, public testimony was taken and public input was encouraged.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, Caucus Ethics Study Committee Chairman Murrell Smith and others took the best ideas and began discussing ethics with their counterparts across the aisle and in the governor’s office.

The legislation:

•  Abolishes the House and Senate ethics committees and replaces them with a new, bi-partisan commission that includes public officials and members of the general public.

• Creates a “Public Integrity Unit” to receive and investigate criminal complaints from the new commission.

• Abolishes “Leadership PAC” contributions to elected officials.

• Requires all lawmakers to disclose all sources of income – public and private – in an attempt to root out conflicts of interest.

• Requires lobbyists to register if they lobby local governments or school districts, but keeps all of the same exemptions for members of the public and “local” organizations such as PTAs, homeowners’ associations, or churches.

• Strengthens criminal penalties for violations of the Ethics Act.

• Eliminates the “blackout period” right before an election when candidates do not have to disclose donors.

• Expands when a public official must recuse himself from a vote to include all levels of the legislative process down to the subcommittee level.

Ultimately, this is a significant change in how the public will hold their public officials accountable.

One major complaint from the public was that the House and Senate judge themselves on ethics, and even though most states and Congress operate in the same manner, it was time for our state to lead on ethics reform.

We have long touted our ethics laws as some of the strongest in the nation, and they were when they were originally written two decades ago. Since that time a lot has changed in politics. Even six years ago, people rarely contributed to political campaigns online.

We hardly give any of these things a second thought today, but our law doesn’t reflect those changes. It is time for our conservative state to promote a conservative ethics reform plan that strengthens the law, streamlines the complaint process and makes public officials more accountable.

Representatives Mike Sottile (R) and Chip Limehouse (R) represent 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 Limehouse can be contacted at 740-5855 or 577-6242 in Charleston or 803-734-2977 in Columbia and via email to ccollum@charlestoncounty.org.

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