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Grassroots Groups Push State Government Reform from the Bottom Up

In the most recent legislative session, bills were introduced to tighten conflict-of-interest rules for state lawmakers, strengthen South Carolina’s open-records law, reform legislative ethics, and overhaul state government to make it more efficient and accountable.

Most of the bills made progress. Some even came close to passing.

But none of them actually did.

So it goes with the General Assembly implementing change, especially on its own members.

“South Carolina’s weak asset disclosure law, loophole-ridden campaign finance regulations, and toothless ethics commission earn the state a failing grade on the State Integrity Index,” says a report released earlier this year by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

In “an unprecedented, data-driven analysis” of state anti-corruption measures, the study gave South Carolina an “F” and a 45th-place ranking.

But now, in the off-session – when the legislative chambers lay quiet awhile – a crescendo for the cause of good government is rolling across the Palmetto State.

It began, as such things often do, with a few voices of Sisyphus pushing the rock of reform.

It is growing, as such things often do, with certain politicians getting behind the movement.

Down in the trenches, however – in the grassroots where the hard work of self-government churns – a statewide network has a message for South Carolinians:

Do not accept half-measures.

“We the People of South Carolina do not want a repeat of last year’s failed attempt at government restructuring, which served only to put a tick mark next to elected officials’ resumes without delivering any honest attempt at true accountability and separation of powers,” says a statement the network issued Tuesday.

“We the People of South Carolina have discussed reform, have given voice to reform, and are demanding that politicians give us the reform we want.”

The coalition consists of taxpayer, tea party and other groups across South Carolina.

In terms of specifics, the network endorses an eight-point reform agenda The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, pushed out across the state in May.

The eight proposals (read more about them here) call for:

  • The governor nominating judges with consent of the Senate, instead of the Legislature electing them;
  • Putting the governor in charge of all executive functions by, among other things, reducing the number of constitutional officers;
  • Shortening the legislative session;
  • Eliminating secrecy in economic incentives;
  • Ending the system of legislators policing themselves on ethics;
  • Requiring all state and local elected officials to report their private income sources;
  • Bolstering  the S.C. Freedom of Information Act; and
  • Enforcing state law mandating an open, deliberative budget process between the executive and legislative branches.

Policy Council President Ashley Landess and representatives of the statewide network pressed their reform agenda at public events today in Charleston and Greenville.

“The problem in this state is not that politicians break the ethics laws, it’s that they make the ethics laws in the first place,” Landess says. “On top of that, they control the judges who rule against citizens and for incumbents in the election process and they even run state agencies through boards and commissions.”

The statement from the groups says South Carolinians “have suffered under judicial and legislative malfeasance by having our right to vote stripped” and “by paying our taxes only to have those monies handed over to lobbyists and corporations and legislators’ retirements.”

Meanwhile, the declaration continues, lawmakers engage in “mind numbingly stupid, hours long legislative sessions arguing about vegetables while committees hide reform bills in their desk drawers because of rules they create.”

Via one of those rules, a single senator – Democrat John Scott of Richland County – killed a bill this year that would have monumentally strengthened the Freedom of Information Act.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, shepherded the bill through his committee and onto the Senate floor in May after it came over from the House. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, sponsored the bill, H. 3235.

Any future ethics reform bills likely would go to Martin’s committee as well.

“I’m optimistic,” Martin told The Nerve on Tuesday regarding the issue in 2013. “For instance, I have no problem at all disclosing sources of income. It’ll definitely be something that we debate quite a bit.”

Martin says South Carolina’s showing in the State Integrity Index is “embarrassing” to him.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairs the Senate Ethics Committee. From that position, Hayes pushed through a Senate rules change in 2011 that pried open the committee’s previously long-secret proceedings. (Read The Nerve’s exclusive report on that here.)

“We’ve made a little bit of progress but we need to make some big progress this coming year,” Hayes says.

Although ethics reform bills go to the Judiciary panel rather than his committee, Hayes says, “I think there’s a good opportunity to pass some major ethics legislation.”

Perhaps, but major change has not been the Legislature’s specialty. It took a legislative bribery scandal involving the FBI in the 1990s, dubbed “Operation Lost Trust,” to get the ethics laws the state has now.

And look how those fared in the State Integrity Index.

In various studies, the Center for Public Integrity and other good-government groups repeatedly have said South Carolina’s open-records law is among the weakest in the country.

This is one of only two states in which the Legislature elects judges. (Virginia’s the other.)

Those are just a few examples.

Indeed, if power concedes nothing without a demand, it could take a big supply of that to muscle reform through the Legislature.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

Legislation Judiciary Incentives General Assembly Ethics Economic Development Accountability Transparency

Center for Public Integrity Global Integrity State Integrity Index Public Radio International Sen. Larry Martin Ashley Landess Sen. Wes Hayes South Carolina Policy Council