By ASHLEY LANDESS
If lawmakers won’t pass a loophole-free income disclosure bill, why not ask them to volunteer the information?
The idea behind the Policy Council’s Conflict Watch project is simple. Lawmakers refuse to pass true reform that would force them and all other elected officials to disclose all sources of their income. The reason for that is pretty obvious: we need to know who pays them if we’re ever going to determine whether or not an illegal conflict of interest exists. And we do deserve to know that, despite the prevailing attitude to the contrary in the State House.
As long as public officials are permitted to get away with hiding their income sources, we can’t discern whether they’re making money from their decisions in office. South Carolina legislative leaders are the nation’s most powerful and least accountable – they control virtually every function of state government, and we know they profit from doing so. We just can’t make them stop, and that’s because they are very clever at covering up their activities.
The income disclosure bill being debated is a sham. It won’t address the problem at all, much less effectively. They do what they always do – evacuate a real reform proposal, make it sound good, then congratulate themselves on passing a real reform.
Taking power from tyrants is no small thing, and it isn’t going to be easy (as we’ve already learned). But forcing full disclosure of all income sources – as SCPC proposed in 2008 – is much harder than it should be. It’s an obvious reform, much like our call to mandate recorded votes. No one in the State House complex has really offered a good reason not to require all income sources to be disclosed. We haven’t asked for the amount earned unless it comes from a government source or a lobbyist principal, which requires a greater level of scrutiny.
The truth is, politicians know they can’t justify hiding who pays them when they’re benefiting from the government they operate in secret. The problem is that they are offering such a weak reform proposal that would change nothing. And those who claim to support reform are solidly pushing the weak version, knowing full well it will preserve the status quo.
That’s why it’s up to you to make sure your own representatives – and your governor, who is the leading champion of ineffective legislation – are sincere about genuine reform. As you have in past years, we want you to ask them to disclose to you, their constituent, all sources of income. With regard to government and special interest contracts, we want full amounts (right now, there are clever ways around that – such as funneling the money through hidden LLCs, or acting as subcontractors and then claiming they were paid by a private business and not a government entity). But will they lie to you directly? More than ever, you have to know the answer to that question.
Our form is based on one filled out by Members of Congress (yes, even U.S. senators and representatives disclose their income). We’ll soon be sending it to you so that you can in turn email it to your officials. This is not, as they like to say in the State House, disclosure to the Policy Council. This is disclosure to you – we merely create the form and post it when you return it so it’s available to the public. That’s how it should be now, and until it is, then we’ll make sure the information is as available as your individual representatives want it to be. Or more importantly, as you demand that it be.
This is an opportunity for lawmakers in particular to restore public trust, one constituent at a time. It can be sent to any elected official you want to hold accountable. And please, encourage ten others to forward to their public officials.
Ashley Landess is president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.