Remember That Ethics Bill the Governor Signed Last Week?

June 28, 2016

Inside Insight

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

ethics

You know, the one establishing independent investigation of lawmakers? Neither do we.

Two and a half years ago, when Gov. Nikki Haley signed legislation creating a Department of Administration, there was a lot of hubbub about this “historic” and “groundbreaking” reform. And then, almost as soon as the table used for the bill signing was broken down and the next day’s news stories written, the whole thing vanished from public view. Except for a renamed Budget and Control Board, it’s hard to remember it happened at all. No one ever talks about how the 2014 reform made certain state agencies more accountable, gave executive functions to the governor, or removed some of the legislature’s unaccountable powers.

Why? Because none of that happened. Although the governor was granted power over some IT functions of state government and put in charge of the state’s car fleet, the legislature actually assumed greater powers over state agencies.

The South Carolina Restructuring Act of 2014, in short, has been justly forgotten because it made so little difference to the way the state’s backward and unaccountable governmental system actually works. The state is still run by the legislature, a few legislative leaders still control agencies properly belonging to the governor, and most of the major decisions are taken by boards whose members are chosen mostly by lawmakers.

We strongly suspect the same will happen to H.3184, an ethics-related bill signed by the governor on June 23rd. That’s the bill, you’ll remember – or maybe you’ve already forgotten – that grants an outside agency the power to investigate lawmakers.

Does it actually do that? Technically, sort of. But in reality, no. The qualifications are so significant as to make it, like the 2014 restructuring bill, virtually meaningless. Yes, an outside agency – the State Ethics Commission – will now have the power to investigate state lawmakers for suspected ethics violations. But under the Commission’s new makeup, the legislature will appoint four of the agency’s eight commissioners, and it will confirm all eight. Formerly all eight were appointed, but couldn’t be fired, by the governor; now the legislature gets an upper hand in how the agency operates.

And notice: the new law’s supporters in the legislature are careful to say it provides “independent investigation.” That’s because, while the Ethics Commission will do the investigation, all decisions on guilt and/or punishments will remain with the House and Senate ethics committees – that is, with the friends and colleagues of the lawmaker under investigation.

More details on the new law here.

The Ethics Commission has already come under fire for handling a simple FOIA request in a way seemingly calculated to protect Gov. Haley – specifically, for claiming that a letter sent to the governor on a significant ethics matter had never been sent, when in fact it had. Now that the legislature has given itself new powers over the Commission, it’s at least reasonable to expect a similarly protective attitude toward lawmakers. In short: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

As for H.3184, if you haven’t forgotten about it already, go ahead and do that now.