It was December 2010. Gov. Nikki Haley had not yet taken office, the 2011-12 legislative session had not yet begun, and ethics reform was a lonely phrase in the halls of the State House.
But it wasn’t completely alone.
Indeed, among the 170 members of the General Assembly, ethics reform was front and center for at least one of them.
That was Sen. Mike Rose, a Dorchester County Republican who was halfway through his first term returning to the Senate after a 12-year hiatus from the chamber, having served as a senator for 10 years during the 1980s and ‘90s.
During the bill prefiling time for the 2011-12 session, which ended in June, Rose submitted a proposal to end the longstanding practice of state lawmakers policing themselves in ethics matters.
That happens through separate House and Senate Ethics committees.
All other state and local elected officials in South Carolina are overseen by the State Ethics Commission.
Rose’s measure, S. 324 and known as a joint resolution, called for amending the S.C. Constitution to give the Legislature explicit leeway to delegate legislative ethics enforcement to an outside entity.
“It’s just really outrageous and shameful in my view that House and Senate members judge themselves,” Rose told The Nerve around the time his proposal was introduced at the beginning of the session.
Subsequently the measure was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee – and never heard from again.
It received no hearings and picked up no co-sponsors. And for the most part, no other legislators or media outlets really even discussed the idea of an independent legislative ethics process throughout 2011.
Now, however, lots of politicians and other people are discussing it:
Haley, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, the chairmen of the House and Senate Ethics committees, legislators in both chambers and both parties, editorial writers at newspapers across the state – you name it.
The difference, of course, is an ethics case involving Haley’s tenure in the House before she became governor.
In late June, the House Ethics Committee cleared Haley of all allegations in the case, namely that she had illegally lobbied as a House member. “The Ethics Committee did its job thoroughly, professionally, and well,” Haley said in a statement when the panel dismissed the claims against her.
One big result of the case is that it drew attention to the fact that lawmakers watch over each other on ethics matters.
Having been a subject of that process, Haley now says she wants it to end. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through,” Haley said Wednesday during a State House news conference.
With Wilson at her side, Haley unveiled five ethics reform proposals, including a constitutional amendment to expand the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction to include lawmakers and dissolve the legislative Ethics committees.
“I do think that’s a constitutional change that we’ll have to go to the people with,” Haley said, “and I think overall it will definitely stop the fox guarding the henhouse.”
The messaging event at the State House was part of a statewide blitz Haley undertook Wednesday to push ethics reform. Her four other proposals are to:
- Have all candidates for public office file the same forms;
- Require elected officials to disclosure their sources of private income;
- Eliminate an exemption in the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for legislative correspondence and working papers; and
- Prohibit legislators who are attorneys from voting when the Legislature elects judges and appoints people to boards that those lawyer-lawmakers appear before as part of their legal work.
The notion that bringing independence to legislative ethics requires a constitutional amendment stems from Article 3, Section 12 of the S.C. Constitution.
That passage says, in part, that each chamber of the Legislature shall “determine its rules of procedure” and “punish its members for disorderly behavior.”
Rose has told The Nerve that he doesn’t necessarily buy the constitutional argument, but he introduced his joint resolution because the argument is often used.
Reached Wednesday, Rose declined to comment for this story.
At the news conference, The Nerve asked Haley if she made any effort to push Rose’s bill after it was introduced at about the same time she took office in January 2011.
“I didn’t know he had that bill but I would certainly support that bill,” Haley responded.
More recently, two other lawmakers also filed bills to end legislative ethics self-policing: Reps. Kevin Ryan, R-Georgetown, and Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield.
Ryan submitted his bill, H. 4421, in November 2011. Brown filed his, H. 4634, in January.
And Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, told The Nerve for a February story about the growing number of such proposals that he authored one a few years ago.
None of the bills made much progress.
Could 2013 be the year things change?
House Ethics Committee Chairman Roland Smith, R-Aiken, told The Nerve on Wednesday that he plans to sponsor an ethics reform bill next year.
The bill will address income disclosure and possibly stiffer penalties, he said. “I want the entire (Ethics) Committee to be a sponsor of it, as well,” Roland Smith added.
What about abolishing the legislative Ethics committees?
“It’s an idea that’s going to have to be discussed,” he said.
Does he support it?
“At this point, no.”
After a little more discussion, the House Ethics Committee chairman said it would be best to describe his position as not taking a position on the issue.
Said Haley, “This is what I expect to see – that 2013 is the year for ethics reform.”
Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.