- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - State senators swiftly rejected Wednesday a proposal requiring elected officials in South Carolina to disclose on ethics forms how much their employers pay them.

A voice vote killed the proposed amendment without debate. Sen. Vincent Sheheen attempted to add it to an ethics reform bill that senators tentatively approved last week, after stripping it of any changes in who oversees legislators’ ethics filings. The measure requires officeholders to disclose their sources of income but not the amounts.

Sheheen, D-Camden, told his colleagues that voters deserve full income disclosure. His amendment required the amounts if income exceeded $200. It would have exempted only income from mutual funds, a court order or interest on bank accounts.

“There is a tremendous amount of difference between receiving $100 and receiving substantially more,” he said. “You think it’s a big deal, but people want to know, and once you tell them, they’re OK with it.”

Sheheen, who’s making another run for governor this year, noted he’s distributed 13 years of tax returns to reporters, and it didn’t hurt. The voice vote followed his brief explanation. Sheheen said he saw no point in arguing his position at length, knowing the support wasn’t there.

Rob Godfrey, a campaign spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, said Sheheen’s support for ethics reform is only for show.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, who made the tabling motion, said he believes private businesses would no longer employ or do business with legislators if their exact pay was exposed. While the relationship with an elected official needs to be disclosed, the specifics do not, he said.

“A private company’s business is just that,” said Martin, R-Pickens. “If you’re in a private company, you don’t talk about how much you make.”

Martin noted he also opposed such specification when the initial ethics law was crafted more than 20 years ago, when he was in the House, saying it would require him to either leave his job or the Legislature.

Most legislators have jobs outside the Statehouse. Being a legislator in South Carolina pays a salary of just $10,400 a year, plus mileage and per diems.

Senators are expected to resume debate on the ethics bill Thursday. Another vote is needed before it returns to the House.

As amended last week, the Senate version keeps in place the system in which legislators oversee their own. Senate and House ethics committees would continue to oversee ethics filings and complaints of their members and candidates for their chambers, while the State Ethics Commission would still oversee all other officeholders.

Martin said senators simply couldn’t agree on independent oversight, so they removed that provision rather than let the whole bill sink.

Haley has been critical of the move.

“The governor has always maintained that two critical components of ethics reform are income disclosure and independent investigations, and nothing has changed,” her spokesman Doug Mayer said last week.

Ethics changes recommended by a non-legislative committee Haley created, co-chaired by two former attorneys general, also stopped short of disclosing amounts of private income.

“We believe that reporting of income and amounts is important to full disclosure of the public official’s interests and the potential for actual or perceived conflicts of interest,” read the report released in January 2013. However, “we are concerned that unwarranted invasion into financial privacy will discourage participation in public service.”

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