The state House of Representatives passed ethics laws that it called the biggest of its kind in two decades. The legislation passed 113-7.
The bill had been sharply criticized for not being tough enough and some watchdog groups said that before amendments were added, ethics laws might actually have been weakened.
The bill is expected to reach the Senate early next week.
“While our ethics laws have been touted as the toughest in the nation, they were written before e-mail, the Internet, PayPal, cell phones, and even ATM machines,” said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister in a statement. “We took a big first step earlier this year by changing the makeup of the House Ethics Committee and today we took another major step forward.”
Rob Godfrey, spokesperson for Gov. Nikki Haley said of the legislation, "This bill represents the most important reform to our ethics code in more than two decades, and the governor appreciates the House making sure it passed before tomorrow's deadline. There are, however, two specific areas in which the governor looks forward to working with the Senate to strengthen: income disclosures and the structure of the ethics committees. She has long said that this year is the year for true ethics reform in South Carolina, and today puts us well on our way to having a government that our citizens can be proud of."
Some highlights of the bill include:
- Abolishing the House and Senate ethics committees and replacing them with a new, bi-partisan commission that includes public officials and members of the general public.
- Creating a “Public Integrity Unit” to investigate criminal complaints.
- Prohibiting contributions to public officials from “Leadership PACs.”
- Requiring all lawmakers to disclose all sources of income – public and private.
- Requiring lobbyists to register if they lobby local governments or school districts, but keeps all of the same exemptions for members of the public and “local” organizations such as PTAs, homeowners’ associations, or churches.
- Strengthening criminal penalties for violations of the Ethics Act.
- Eliminating the “blackout period” right before an election when candidates do not have to disclose donors.
- Expanding when a public official must recuse himself from a vote to include all levels of the legislative process down to the subcommittee level.
“I’m proud of my colleagues for coming together approve these major reforms,” said Rep. Murrell Smith of Sumter, the chairman of the House Caucus Ethics Reform Study Committee said in a statement. “This is conservative legislation to its core: It strengthens the law, streamlines the complaint process, and makes public officials more accountable to the public.”
“It was past time for a change to our ethics laws,” said House Ethics Committee Chairman Kenny Bingham. “It was time for our state to take the lead, raise the bar, and hold our public officials to a higher standard. My colleagues in the House took a big step forward this week.”
Not everyone was happy with the bill. Daniel Encarnacion of the Republican Liberty Caucus of South Carolina told Patch, "We are very concerned with the ramifications of the ethics bill with respect to what constitutes a 'lobbyist' who needs to register. Some are interpreting the legislation to essentially require any of our members to register as lobbyists just to speak with lawmakers. If that is true, that is unacceptable. More specific language exempting grassroots activists who receive no compensation and spend no money needs to be inserted into this legislation by the Senate."
The seven legislators who voted against the bill were all Republicans. They were:
- Eric Bedingfield - Greenville
- Bill Chumley - Spartanburg
- Greg Delleney - Chester
- Raye Felder - York
- Dennis Moss - Cherokee
- Ralph Norman - York
- Mike Pitts - Laurens