Reform debates in South Carolina often follow a pattern – they start with a fire and end with a study committee. Each time citizen outrage hits a boiling point (high taxes, rising poverty, failing schools), politicians trot out their defense strategy: Form committees, hold hearings and propose watered-down legislation that either dies in committee or makes the problem worse.
Citizens rarely win because legislative leaders have the system rigged. They practically control all three branches of government, aren’t elected statewide, operate in secret and police themselves. They ignore laws they don’t want to follow and change the ones they can’t avoid. Their complicated rules and procedures allow powerful lawmakers to “fast-track” bills they want passed without public input and kill bills they don’t want despite public input.
Legislative leaders won’t give up power without a fight, and over the last few years the South Carolina Policy Council has stood with a diverse group of leaders and activists to give them a good one. But despite all our work, the movement to end corruption and restore the Republic in our state will meet the same fate as other reforms ….unless we do something different. We’re launching a new initiative to do that – instead of waiting for politicians to pass laws we’ll offer citizens new tools to push elected officials to take individual responsibility to restore public trust.
We’ve identified eight steps to dramatically reform our state. Each of those will require a law or constitutional amendment, but until those are passed there is plenty that politicians can do individually and voluntarily to prove they are serious about reform. And they can start today. We’re asking citizens to step up and insist that every elected official voluntarily disclose his or her private income sources. We’ve prepared a form (based on the federal disclosure form for members of Congress) for citizens to send to their legislators and all nine constitutional officers, and we’ve built a public database in which we’ll post the information. Together, we can build a public record that allows citizens to see for themselves if their lawmakers represent the public’s interest or their own.
It is absurd that politicians hide their private income sources from the public, expecting us to rely on the “honor system” when it’s time to recuse themselves from potential conflicts of interest. We have no way now of knowing if politicians use their office to benefit themselves, but there is plenty of evidence that suggests they might. For example, the business interests of some legislative leaders raise concerns about potential conflicts.The Speaker of the House (arguably the state’s most powerful politician) owns a pharmaceutical business on behalf of which he has solicited business from the hospitals, who happen to be the biggest proponents of expanding the state’s Medicaid program. Readers will see in today’s Nerve story that the Senate Finance Chairman, who also sits on the board of the S.C.Transportation Infrastructure Bank, owns part of a concrete company that has done $30 million worth of business mainly with the S.C. Department of Transportation.
There appears to be little progress to pass laws to stop politicians from benefiting at public expense. That’s why we can’t wait for politicians to require themselves to disclose who pays them. Instead, citizens should download our form and begin pushing for the information right now, and when they get it back they can send it along to us for fact-checking and posting on our public database. With all the information available publicly and online, we’re likely to catch many omissions or misrepresentations, and we’ll do our best to verify each form submitted.
We hope most elected officials will return the forms quickly, but for those who don’t we’ll begin to do our own research. And going forward, we’ll be monitoring and reporting on any potential conflicts of interest that arise.
There is a positive opportunity here for citizens to play a direct role in ensuring the survival of the Republic and for elected officials to build a record of leadership and trust with those they serve. Our government process has become too complicated and even corrupted by some self-serving politicians and special interests, and it often leaves us feeling powerless. But as long as there is America’s brand of democracy, there will be a way to force politicians to bend to the will of the people they serve. We may have to do it one politician at a time, but it can be done. Let’s not give up and accept the excuses we’re already hearing for why reform can’t be accomplished in the State House. Instead, let’s use the momentum we’ve created to force politicians to respond to us now. Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear, and this is their chance to prove they are serious about delivering the reforms so many of them promised.
(Click here to access the income disclosure form.)