COLUMBIA — The pressure will be on the South Carolina House this week to pass a bill strengthening the state’s ethics laws before a legislative deadline dooms it for the year.
Ethics reform is the most high-profile issue threatened by the Wednesday “crossover” deadline for each chamber to complete action on its bills and send them to the other. Bills that don’t advance from one chamber to the other by Wednesday require a two-thirds vote to even be considered – a nearly impossible hurdle for measures that are at all controversial.
When the session began, legislators of both parties and chambers identified ethics reform a top priority for 2013, following last year’s political fiascos that toppled then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard and forced Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to defend herself, successfully, before a legislative panel on allegations she illegally lobbied while she was a House member.
But progress has been slow. The Senate has moved none of its piecemeal reform bills to the floor yet.
House leaders insist their 38-page ethics reform package, re-written Thursday, will make the deadline. That requires approval on Tuesday, followed by a vote by 5 p.m. Wednesday to send it to the Senate.
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said Republican lawmakers moved as quickly as they could on a compromise that could pass the House.
“The fact that it’s the No. 1 priority does not make it simple. It’s complicated,” agreed House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia.
While groups that have been pushing for reform give parts of the package high marks, including a requirement that politicians disclose all of their income sources, they criticize it as not going far enough.
Bannister said the goal is to just get it to the Senate, so the process can continue.
Senate President Pro Tem John Courson said a group of senators will meet Thursday to look at the House proposal and make changes.
“Something like this will always get slow-walked,” said John Crangle of Common Cause, who’s been advocating for reform for decades. “This is very sensitive stuff for these guys.”
He pointed out that it took nearly two years after the FBI’s “Operation Lost Trust” in 1990 for the Legislature to pass the current ethics law. That operation ended with 27 convictions or guilty pleas of state legislators and lobbyists.
Other reform bills are almost certainly dead for the year. These include legislation strengthening the state’s Freedom of Information Act. As written, the bill barred government entities from charging excessive fees, required them to respond more quickly to requests, and inserted penalties for ignoring the law. But for the second consecutive year, an amendment removing the exemption for legislators’ correspondence stymied the effort. The House voted last month to send the bill back through the committee process.
However, bills that don’t pass this year don’t completely die. Debate can resume in January wherever it is when the regular session ends.
With six weeks to go, other priority items have passed the Senate and await action in the House.
These include a restructuring bill that gives the governor’s office more control of the state’s bureaucratic functions – an overhaul that Haley made her signature issue after years of failed attempts by her predecessor, Mark Sanford.
The bill breaks up the little-understood Budget and Control Board and assigns many of its duties to a new agency in the governor’s Cabinet, with responsibilities including fleet and property management, human resources and janitorial services. Advocates say it streamlines and modernizes state government.
After years of being blamed for the bill’s demise, the Senate approved the bill in February, thanks largely to a compromise worked out by co-sponsoring Sens. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Vincent Sheheen, who is Haley’s expected Democratic rival in 2014.
On Tuesday, Haley urged legislators to send the bill to her desk.
“The Legislature’s slow-walked some this year. That’s a little bit disappointing,” she said. “What they’ve said is they have great plans and intend to finish strong, so we’re going to continue to keep the heat going.”