As of this edit, new bills have been introduced in the SC legislature in the 2017 session that address dark money. We will keep you informed on these bills through our newsletter and social media accounts so that you may advocate for them if you like.
For 65 years, volunteer League of Women Voters members have been committed to making democracy work in South Carolina, and for the past four years, the League of Women Voters of South Carolina (LWVSC) has joined legislative supporters and other reformers to improve the transparency and accountability of our government through ethics reform. During the last hours of the 2016 session, the South Carolina General Assembly finally passed two ethics reform bills. Both are very significant steps toward better government.
How did we get here? The House repeatedly passed bills, but even the determined leadership of Senator Larry Martin could not move the Senate to pass an omnibus ethics reform bill. Perhaps the most important turning point on the rocky road to reform was when the House leadership recognized that no omnibus ethics reform could pass the Senate because each aspect of reform has its own group of entrenched opponents there. So in late 2014, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, made the crucial decision to convene a committee to produce a series of thoroughly-vetted, single-issue bills.
Among these were the original versions of the two bills that were passed on June 15 and signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley on June 23, .
One new law, H.3184, establishes a reconstituted independent Ethics Commission with four appointees each from the governor and the General Assembly. For the first time, legislators are subject to initial investigation by this commission, which already handles complaints against all other public officials in the state. The commission staff (unlike legislative ethics committee staff) includes law enforcement professionals who meet the same standards as State Law Enforcement Division investigators. The accused will be given ample opportunity to challenge the facts of the case or cite differing interpretations of law, including opinions of the legislative ethics committees. The commissioners then vote on whether there is probable cause to believe a violation occurred. They will send their recommendation on to the legislative ethics committee and, in appropriate cases, to the state attorney general.
One provision [in the new law] is a concern. If the commission finds probable cause that a violation has occurred, House or Senate ethics committees will be able to secretly send the report back for reconsideration and if the commission reverses its findings, the case remains confidential. Speaker Lucas and House conferees, including primary bill sponsor Tommy Pope, R-York, were reluctant to accept this lack of transparency, but eventually agreed in order to pass the important improvements that remained in the bill.
The second new law, H.3186, requires that public officials across South Carolina disclose their own and their immediate family's private and public sources of income, with some exemptions for income from mutual funds and similar sources. Clear definition of sources is provided by reference to IRS forms.
This will give citizens information to judge whether our officials are acting in the public's interest or are using their official positions to serve their own interest. Omissions in the bill include disclosure of amounts of income and disclosure of income received by businesses with which officials are associated from organizations or businesses that are represented at the General Assembly by lobbyists. Columbia GOP Rep. Kirkman Finlay, primary sponsor of the House bill, argued in conference committee for the House version and especially against a Senate demand for exclusion of income from brokerage accounts, but in the end, he and other conferees accepted a compromise bill that is not ideal but gives us significantly more information than we have had.
Now we need to see how well these bills work, identify and address deficiencies, and move forward on the many areas of ethics reform that are not included within these bills. The most important of these is the "dark money" that anonymously shapes far too much of our political conversation today. The League of Women Voters of South Carolina believes that comprehensive ethics reform is not a result that is achieved once and for all, but an ongoing process of protecting the interests of the citizens of our state. We intend to continue to be an active part of that process.