SC libertarian think tank, conservation group promote 8-part plan to reform ethics laws

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s tea party activists and environmentalists have joined forces to reform state government, saying they don’t trust the politicians in power to do it correctly.


Leaders of the libertarian South Carolina Policy Council, its tea party allies and the Coastal Conservation League promoted the council’s eight-part reform plan Wednesday with stops in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville.

Council president Ashley Landess said proposals announced last week by Gov. Nikki Haley don’t go nearly far enough. State senators and House members have been working on their own plans to tighten ethics loopholes, saying that will be a priority in 2013.

But the groups say the current system is corrupted, and structural change is necessary.

They hope to mobilize a grass-roots network to force the change they seek.

“I think we’ve been too soft when talking about ethics,” Landess said. “What we’re really talking about is corruption.”

She said legislators know where the loopholes are to the laws they write: “Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s good or right. I think it’s difficult to break South Carolina ethics law. I think you’d have to work at it.”

The council’s proposals include requiring elected officials to disclose their sources of income on ethics forms.

That one appears to have widespread support.

It was among the items Haley proposed last week during news conferences across the state with Attorney General Alan Wilson, and one House Speaker Bobby Harrell has called an obvious starting point.

Criticizing Haley’s fly-around the state, Harrell said Haley’s own questionable actions highlighted the need for such reform. The House Ethics Committee cleared Haley in June of allegations that she illegally lobbied for a hospital and an engineering firm with state contracts, saying the state’s ethics laws are too ambiguous.

Haley also proposed removing legislators’ exemption from the state’s open records law – an exemption she cited for months during her successful 2010 race, though she eventually allowed reporters to see copies of e-mails from a legislative account that were largely spam.

Landess said strengthening the state’s weak open records law goes far beyond removing that exemption, to bar agencies from charging exorbitant fees, take away their ability to stall on records request and add real penalties for not complying. A bill to do so died in the state Senate when session ended in June.

Landess challenged Haley on that front, saying if she’s serious about transparency, she should direct her Cabinet agencies by executive order to operate as that proposed law required.

The growing contention between Haley and her fellow Republican legislative leaders means other proposals will meet strong resistance. Animosity between former Gov. Mark Sanford and the Legislature killed previous efforts to restructure government and give the governor’s office more power. Legislators’ relationship with Haley is no better.

The council and tea party groups advocating the reform plan no longer support Haley, though they helped elect her. But that hasn’t diminished their push to transfer duties to the executive office.

Harry Kibler, the founder of RINO (Republicans in Name Only) Hunt, said it’s not about giving more power to the governor, but making the government more accountable to voters statewide. The activists say power is now concentrated in the Legislature, whose members are elected only by their district.

Their other proposals include transferring legislators’ powers to fill hundreds of slots on boards and commissions to the governor and letting the governor pick judges, rather than legislators electing judges who are selected by a legislatively controlled panel.

“It’s the safest, cleanest way to choose judges,” Landess said, while acknowledging she might not like a governor’s choices.

Haley suggested that lawyer-legislators who might appear before judges recuse themselves from voting. But Landess said that doesn’t adequately restore judicial independence.

The Policy Council has long opposed giving companies tax breaks to come to South Carolina, calling it corporate welfare. Along those lines, the alliance wants any company seeking incentives to apply for them publicly. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt has called such arguments impractical. He told senators earlier this year that requiring companies to publicly lay out their business plans as they make location decisions would only ensure they take their money and jobs to another state. Landess argues the better route is to lower taxes for all companies so incentives aren’t needed.

“Take the risk. Let’s make this public,” Landess said.