- Associated Press - Thursday, February 20, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina senators on Thursday tentatively approved a bill that changes the state’s ethics laws after trimming it to maintain the current system of legislators investigating their colleagues.

Despite the removal of its most contentious piece, the bill’s prospects for passage remain unclear. The measure has been stripped of any changes regarding who handles ethics complaints - a key component for those calling for reform.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said senators simply could not agree on independent investigations of members. A suggested compromise earlier this week to let the State Law Enforcement Division conduct investigations fell flat when senators couldn’t agree to the details. After days of back and forth in private meetings that got nowhere, it became clear that the “best thing to do was ditch that proposition,” said Martin, R-Pickens.

He said he didn’t want to see the whole effort die because of that issue, which has been the stumbling block since last year.

“I couldn’t let the progress we made on a host of things just go down,” he said.

The Senate Thursday gave a key “second reading” to the amended bill, but only after agreeing to carry over debate on all other amendments before the required “third reading” that would send it back to the House. Normal rules requiring a super-majority vote to amend on third were waived.

Currently, House and Senate ethics committees handle complaints and oversee campaign filings of their members and candidates to their chamber, while the State Ethics Commission handles all other offices in both state and local governments.

Even the House proposal to change that did not go far enough for many.

Under its version passed last year, the House and Senate ethics committees would no longer be in charge of ensuring their members follow state ethics laws. A revamped state Ethics Commission would conduct the investigations. However, the legislative panels would still decide on any punishment.

Those who have been calling for a completely independent process include both Gov. Nikki Haley and her Democratic opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen. The House Ethics Committee in 2012 cleared Haley of allegations that she lobbied for former employers while in the House. It’s what spurred initial calls for reform. Haley agreed that gray areas of the law need cleaned up. She has since traveled the state pushing for the changes.

While what was voted on Thursday improved some ethics loopholes, it was not meaningful reform, Sheheen said after the vote.

The bill requires officeholders to disclose their sources of income on campaign filings, but not the amount. Sheheen said amendments he’ll introduce next week include requiring officeholders to also show voters how much they’re being paid by their employers.

“If someone gets $100 or $1 million for their work, voters deserve to know,” said Sheheen, D-Camden.

He’ll also propose amendments that would require legislators to be out of office for longer before coming back to the Statehouse as a lobbyist. Currently, they’re supposed to wait one year. The bill would up that to two.

Other changes in the bill include requiring third-party groups raising money to defeat or elect candidates to file with the State Ethics Commission and disclose their contributions and expenses. Legislators have been attacked without knowing who was doing it or where the money was coming from.



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