By Paul Gable
Ethics reform and government transparency sounded great on the campaign trails last fall, but the reality in Columbia is another year will pass without any meaningful changes taking place in state government.
The S.C. General Assembly is up to its old tricks of exempting itself from the laws that govern all other elected officials in the state.
Two bills that may have added real oversight over state legislators appear to be dead on the vine. One would have gotten rid of the House and Senate ethics committees and put legislators under the same ethics commission that oversees all other public officials in the state.
The other would have made state legislators subject to the same Freedom of Information rules as all other public officials in the state.
But members of the General Assembly continue to exempt themselves from these rules because they can. They make up the rules for everybody else but, at least in their own minds, are above the law themselves.
Consider, then Gov. Mark Sanford paid the highest ethics fine in state history in 2010 for, among other violations, personal use of state aircraft and personal use of campaign funds. Meanwhile, House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s over $300,000 reimbursement from campaign funds to himself for costs associated with using his personal airplane for state business gets swept under the rug.
Why? Sanford was subject to oversight by the SC Ethics Commission, Harrell to the House Ethics Committee.
Lt. Gov. Ken Ard is forced to resign office in disgrace for using campaign funds for personal expenses while House Ways and Means chairman Brian White skates on the same type of allegations.
Again, ethics commission versus ethics committee – same state law applies to both, but enforcement takes a very different path.
Freedom of Information law is a little different. The General Assembly members are specifically exempted from the provisions of the FOIA law.
You can’t even find out who votes for or against a specific piece of legislation never mind get email or other records of what went on behind the scenes.
Until state legislators are subject to the same rules as every other public official in the state, ethics reform and government transparency will remain a joke in South Carolina. Don’t look for any changes soon. The current “Do as I say, not as I do” system is too convenient for the good ol’ boys in the General Assembly.