Citizen Participation Would Be Stifled Under Controversial ‘Ethics-Reform’ Bill, Critics Say

April 24, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Tape on MouthCitizens would have to register as lobbyists to speak before committees of the General Assembly or state agencies under a controversial House bill that also would decriminalize many state ethics violations, representatives of citizen groups said this afternoon at a State House press conference.

“This, in effect, is shutting down and regulating free speech,” said Talbert Black, state coordinator of the grassroots organization Campaign for Liberty. “So if we let this go, what’s next?  A poll tax so I can go and vote? Am I going to have to register before I can come and practice my religion?”

Ashley Landess, president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, described that provision of H. 3945, which is scheduled to be debated Thursday on the House floor, as a “kind of Draconian punishment of citizens for speaking out.”

“There’s a good reason that they hid this, clearly because there are things in there that are untenable,” Landess said, noting the decriminalization of ethics violations and another provision giving the Legislature appointment powers to a new commission that would oversee lawmakers and members of the executive branch.

Besides the Policy Council and Campaign for Liberty, representatives of the Coastal Conservation League, League of Women Voters of South Carolina and Common Cause of South Carolina expressed concerns during the press conference about the bill, the text of which was not released publicly until Thursday evening, a week after it was introduced on the House floor.

In what observers described as an unprecedented move, a House Judiciary subcommittee and the full committee held meetings on the legislation last week before a written version of the bill was released publicly.

The secrecy surrounding the bill and the apparent rush by House leaders to push it through quickly has galvanized opposition among a coalition of diverse organizations. Public criticism erupted after it was revealed, as first reported by The Nerve on Friday, that the bill would delete language in a section of state law (8-13-1520) specifying criminal penalties for, among other things, violations of campaign-finance requirements and ethical rules of conduct.

What wasn’t as well known publicly about the bill until this afternoon was a provision that would change the state definition of a lobbyist. Under current law (Section 2-17-10), a lobbyist does not include a “person who appears only before public sessions of committees or subcommittees of the General Assembly, public hearings of state agencies, public hearings before any public body of a quasi-judicial nature, or proceedings of any court of this State.”

It also doesn’t include a person who “receives no compensation to engage in lobbying and who does not make expenditures or incur obligations for lobbying in an aggregate amount in excess of five hundred dollars ($500) in a calendar year.”

Those two subsections are eliminated under H. 3945, which, if it becomes law, would require individuals to register with the state as lobbyists before they could speak before state committees on behalf of themselves or groups they represent, critics contend.

Lynn Teague, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters, said her organization is concerned about the “serious limitations this bill places on citizen participation.” She pointed out that a number of diverse groups provided ideas about ethics reform to the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform, which issued a report in January that recommended, among other things, strengthening penalties for ethics violations.

“Honest government is not a partisan issue,” Teague said. “Our first reason for being here today is to point out that this (H. 3945) is not just a procedural oddity, but a serious failure of representative democracy.”

Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, whose organization has been critical of the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board’s spending priorities over the years, said he didn’t believe that “we can have real transportation reform without also having ethics reform.”

“We can’t allow the State House to operate in the manner in which they have been operating – without transparency, without accountability, and (without) trust that our investment in transportation in this state be well made,” he said.

Common Cause Director John Crangle said despite the many problems with H. 3945 as written, “we are at a point where we have a historic opportunity to pass a comprehensive ethics-reform bill that will clean up most of the problems we have here in South Carolina.” He noted that Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, has assured him that the Senate was “taking ethics reform seriously.”

Landess and Black criticized House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that approved H. 3945 last week. Bannister, a co-sponsor of the bill, issued a press release Tuesday that read in part: “Nobody is perfect. That’s why pencils have erasers.”

“So I call on Bruce Bannister to pull out his pencil and erase the whole bill and start all over, and give us something that people have actually asked for, that will be strong reform on our ethics laws,” Black said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Following him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.