May 21, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Senate Version of Ethics-Reform Bill Fails to Regulate Local Government Lobbying

HandshakeThe Senate Judiciary Committee has scrubbed its version of an ethics-reform bill of any mention of regulating lobbyists at the local government level in South Carolina.

Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that approved the amended bill (H. 3945) late last week, told The Nerve Tuesday he agreed to remove the provision from the legislation because of a separate bill (S. 601) he sponsored.

That bill, which passed the Senate by a May 1 crossover deadline and is now before the House Judiciary Committee, regulates people lobbying “political subdivisions,” such as cities, towns, counties, school districts and special districts. In defining lobbyists for political subdivisions of the state, it would require those lobbyists to register with the State Ethics Commission, as those who lobby state lawmakers currently do.

Thurmond said “millions and billions of dollars” are spent by local governments, adding, “I’d like the light to shine on that (local government lobbying).”

“If we’re creating an opportunity for people to trust government officials, we have to do things differently,” he said.

The freshman senator said local lobbying covers a variety of projects, including economic development.  As the House bill was being debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, some groups argued that local lobbying for economic development projects should be kept secret for competitive reasons, he said.

Thurmond said he doesn’t know how many lobbyists are involved at the local level statewide, though he estimated there are 10 to 15 in Charleston County alone.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, John Crangle, executive director of the government-watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, said the elimination of the local-government lobbying provision in H. 3945 is a “defect that has to be remedied.”

Crangle said the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform called for lobbying regulations to extend to local governments.

Lynn Teague, advocacy director for the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, told The NerveTuesday that citizens should not trust the House to pass Thurmond’s bill, noting, “Given their (lawmakers’) history, you know that doesn’t work.”

Besides removing the local-lobbying provision, the Senate version of H. 3945 also appears to create several loopholes in a proposed ban on public officials or employees working on their private businesses while on taxpayers’ time, or using public equipment for their private businesses. The exceptions would include:

  • “Incidental use of public materials, personnel, or equipment, subject to or available for a public official’s, public member’s, or public employee’s use that does not result in additional public expense,” or
  • “Incidental conversations, communications, or activities of a part-time public official or public member related to his primary occupation or business that does not interfere with the performance of his official duties or responsibilities.”

Crangle, who is a lawyer, said that language seems too ambiguous without a specific definition of “incidental use.”

The now-amended H. 3945 also would:

  • Ban leadership political-action committees;
  • Establish a multi-agency “Public Integrity Unit” within the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate criminal cases;
  • Create a felony offense for a public official who used his public office for personal gain; and
  • Require lawmakers and their immediate family members to report their private sources of income, as well as their debt. South Carolina is the only state that requires lawmakers to report just their government-income sources, according to a report by the Commission on Ethics Reform.

However, there are significant differences between the House and Senate on how to investigate ethics complaints.

The House would create a 16-member “Joint Committee on Ethics” that would be filled by Republican and Democratic legislators from both chambers, and eight citizens appointed by both chambers. The joint committee would replace the existing House and Senate Ethics committees, which investigate ethics complaints against lawmakers in their respective chambers.

The Senate would establish a reconstituted State Ethics Commission that would investigate complaints against legislators, referring potential criminal matters to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. The House and Senate Ethics committees would punish lawmakers for non-criminal matters referred to those panels by the Ethics Commission, which currently has no jurisdiction over legislators.

The proposed new Ethics Commission would include four appointees from the governor and two each from the House and Senate. The current nine-member board is appointed by the governor, with consent of the General Assembly.

With just a little over three weeks left in the regular legislation session and a state budget to approve, it is unclear whether the full Senate will have enough time to get to H. 3945. In a procedural move to delay debate, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and a Senate Judiciary Committee member, placed a “minority report” on the bill, forcing it to the chamber’s contested calendar.

Under Senate rules, the bill could move off the contested calendar by several methods, including Malloy agreeing to remove the minority report. A bill on the contested calendar also can be moved up to a “special-order” calendar either by a majority vote of present senators if approved by a majority of the Senate Rules Committee, or by a two-thirds vote of the chamber if the motion is made outside the Rules Committee.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.

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