Watered-Down Reform

June 5, 2014

Inside Insight

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ariail watered down reformETHICS REFORM? YEAH, RIGHT.

For two years a diverse coalition has stood together to demand substantive reform to end the concentration of power and secrecy in S.C. government, which the South Carolina Policy Council outlined clearly and which has become obvious every day since. Our state’s politicians are benefiting from office in ways that no other state allows, and the public is more aware of that than ever. But despite the citizen outcry to restore checks and balances to our government to end the systemic corruption that is ruining our state, legislators have once again done what they always do – put together a huge bill that does nothing of substance and actually could make the system worse.

That simply won’t fly anymore. This state is falling apart and citizens know it. We’ve put clear research in front of the public, and outlined eight of the most obvious changes that have to be made in order to stop the corruption that is verging on tyranny. But the legislative leadership has dug in hard to defend their power and the money that comes with it. With the exception of one substantive reform of the eight (the income-source disclosure mandate), lawmakers have done nothing to stem their power to benefit personally from serving in office.

Most of us who started the fight for this reform didn’t want a big omnibus ethics bill because we knew that it would be easier to disguise the failure to accomplish change in a densely worded multi-page mess. That’s the preference of politicians, who know they can hide a multitude of sins in the fine print. But that’s the way lawmakers keep from changing anything, and they’ve done it again.

South Carolina is the most corrupt state in the nation. The debacle surrounding the corruption investigation of House Speaker Bobby Harrell – who has contorted the justice system and abused the legislative process to save himself from a state grand jury investigation – makes it clear that the problem is becoming worse. South Carolina is verging on tyranny, the inevitable result of what then-Governor Sanford rightly identified as our state’s flawed government structure in which all power is concentrated in the Legislature.

The rule of law is disappearing in our state. But not one legislator or the governor has stepped up to acknowledge that problem, much less take a strong stand to fix it.

After two years, the bill that will likely emerge from conference committee today does contain income disclosure (we’ll have to see the final version to know how far it goes), but little else. Although many lament the lack of independent oversight, it was clear from the first version of this bill that there was no intention of changing the structure that allows self-policing by legislators. Most of the versions of the bill made the problem worse, even allowing legislators to control the State Ethics Commission in addition to retaining their own ethics committees. Good riddance to all that. We have to eliminate the whole structure that allows politicians any self-policing, and they came nowhere close to doing that.

What is in the bill is a provision that would expand the definition of “official duties” for which politicians can use their campaign funds to include pretty much anything they want it to. It’s a testament to how little lawmakers care about restoring public trust in government. Rather than close the loophole allowing campaign accounts to be treated like slush funds, they actually make it easier to do just that.

This year has been another wasted one for reform. We have our work cut out for us to build public support for the full changes to state government that are necessary if anything else is to change. Citizens must stand firmly together to get the reform we deserve on our terms, and remind our “leaders” that the government doesn’t belong to them – or the power to control it.