In April this year, the South Carolina Policy Council undertook an experiment. The experiment was this: Could progress be made in the sphere of transparency in the absence of a law passed by the General Assembly?
Take the subject of income disclosure. Most South Carolinians who aren’t members of the General Assembly instinctively understand that elected officials bear some obligation to disclose the sources – if not the amounts, at least the sources – of their private incomes. Elected officials, after all, and particularly state lawmakers, possess an authority no one else enjoys: the authority to change laws. Since they can change laws for their own financial benefit – by giving a tax break to a company whose corporate leaders donate to their campaign, for example, or by securing the funding of a new highway that happens to run through property they own – it makes sense to require them to disclose their sources of non-government income. Indeed, only in South Carolina are elected officials required to reveal nothing about their non-governmental income.
In order for such a requirement to become law, however, state lawmakers would have to vote for it, and for apparent reasons they are not inclined to do that. But what if the Policy Council asked elected officials to disclose their non-governmental income voluntarily?
To do that, SCPC simply made it easier for constituents to ask their senators, representatives, or constitutional officers if they wouldn’t mind disclosing their income sources. Many have done so. A good number have not.
Among the most surprising revelations resulting from the project, however, has been the attitudes of state lawmakers. As their constituents have sent them emails asking if they’d fill out the SCPC income source form, several of them have responded with the kind of irritation you almost never see in a politician communicating with a constituent. Gone is the niceness. Gone are the friendly promises to “give careful consideration” to the constituent’s request. Instead, a number of constituents have gotten responses that can fairly be characterized as – let’s say – impatient.
Yesterday The Nerve’s editor Rick Brundrett posted a story about Sen. Shane Martin. Sen. Martin (R-Spartanburg) seems to have been upset that his friend Rep. Eric Bedingfield, whose income disclosure form served as the subject of a story (a rigorously factual story, incidentally) on The Nerve. In any case, Sen. Martin responded to a request that he disclose his private income by writing, in part:
“I have no interest in having the companies for which I perform work as a contractor being dragged through the mud or accused of wrongdoing simply because someone decides that something doesn’t look right or they want to trumpet a ‘revelation’ for some reason. My customers did not sign up for political drama, and they will not stick around for it. I have to work for a living, and I will not put the income that feeds, clothes and shelters my family in jeopardy for the sake of an experiment.”
The response is fair enough – Sen. Martin is not required by law or by anything else to participate in SCPC’s income disclosure project. You can’t help wondering, though, why a man who so values his own and his customers’ insulation from public scrutiny should have chosen elected office as a part-time career.
More typical have been the testy responses of lawmakers who demand that the Policy Council first revealits donors – as if a nonprofit organization that takes no government money bears the same obligations as elected officials who (a) are salaried public officials and (b) have the power to change laws for their own financial benefit. Typical of this line of thinking is Rep. Bill Herbkersman (R-Beaufort), who let one of his constituents know that he’d be “more than happy to [participate] if the Policy Council will disclose its funding sources and salary structure. By definition the Policy Council is affecting policy, do you think we should know who is financially behind these efforts? I’ve asked before but have been told that because the ACLU can avoid it Policy Council can avoid it. Let’s go for complete transparency, what do you think?”
Rep. Greg Delleney (R-Chester), similarly, had this to say to a constituent via email: “My Statement of Economic Interest form is on line with the House Ethics Committee. I do not respond to private organizations. Especially those organizations, like the SC Policy Council, that refuse to disclose their income and will not reveal their donors, or what groups finance them.”
To Rep. Delleney’s credit, his Statement of Economic Interests form, unlike those of many of his colleagues, does actually list sources of income (including both a $12,000 salary from the General Assembly and a retirement payment of $25,146 from the same). But, as Rep. Delleney must know, in practice lawmakers don’t have to put much of anything about their private incomes on their SEI forms. His main objection seems to be that the “private organization” making the request hasn’t first shown him its donor list.
Among the most remarkable responses to the project was Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers. He began: “Thank you (and the 20 others participating in this project who have emailed me) for your email.” Then, apparently alluding to some constituents’ failure to spell the commissioner’s surname correctly, he cleared that up: “For reference, the position that I have the privilege to occupy is titled Commissioner of Agriculture and my last name is spelled ‘Weathers.’”
“As to the information,” Weathers continued, “I just completed the annual Statement of Economic Interest. I believe the information you and others are asking for is providing in that response. I will point out that my ‘outside positions’ are all related to my family farming businesses that I operate with my brother.”
In the end, though, the “20 others participating in this project” became a good bit more numerous, and Commissioner Weathers did fill out SCPC’s voluntary income disclosure form. He even had it hand delivered to our office – a nice touch.
You wonder, though, why the members of South Carolina’s political class get so touchy and defensive over a simple request that they let the public see their private sources of income – to the point of responding angrily to constituents and trotting out the embarrassingly weak argument that because a private organization hasn’t shown them its donor list, they shouldn’t have to tell their constituents who pays them.
Every other state in the nation requires some disclosure of private income. Our politicians’ testy posturing suggests there may be a reason for that.