- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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March 18

The Times and Democrat, Orangeburg, South Carolina, on state’s water law:

Farmers are on the offensive, with the South Carolina Farm Bureau Federation arguing that attempts to revise South Carolina’s Surface Water Act of 2010 amount to attacks on agriculture by special interests.



“Under the guise of protecting the environment, those special interests are accusing farmers of killing rivers and sucking up water without any check and balances,” the federation says in a mass email urging pressure on state representatives to reject changes to the law. Farm Bureau cites “a big 6 list of outrageous attacks on S.C. farmers matched up against the truth.”

The following is extracted from the Farm Bureau statement:

MYTH #1: Farmers will “kill S.C. rivers”

TRUTH: Some of South Carolina’s rivers are in better shape than ever before, all thanks to the actions of farmers and their neighbors.

MYTH #2: Farming hurts the environment

TRUTH: Farmers make their living from the environment, and are constantly looking for new methods to preserve this natural resource. Being good stewards and abiding under current laws keeps food on our tables.

MYTH #3: Farmers are not conservationists.

TRUTH: For centuries, farmers have been good stewards of the land, conserving soil and water as they provide everything we need to survive.

MYTH #4: The Surface Water Act of 2010 needs to be fixed.

TRUTH: The Surface Water Act of 2010 passed after four years of debate between lawmakers, farmers, conservation groups, scientists and regulatory agencies. Special interest groups say the current law - which took effect January 2011 - has a major loophole. That’s just not true. The registration process, which establishes a minimum flow for a river and requires Agricultural registrations to fit within a safe yield, was part of a stakeholder process with the approval of many conservation groups.

MYTH #5: Irrigation will drain rivers dry.

TRUTH: Agricultural surface water withdrawals must be first approved by DHEC and are also subject to the provision of the State Drought Response Act.

MYTH #6: Farmers are using too much water

TRUTH: The amount of water needed to irrigate farmland may seem high but not when compared to how much water each family uses each day. It takes 2.7 million gallons to put one inch of water on 100 acres one time. The average farmer is now capable of feeding at least 155 people, or close to 40 families.

“Bottom line, agriculture irrigation accounts for only about 3 percent of all surface water use. Water suppliers use about 61 percent.”

On this day of appreciation - National Ag Day is March 18 - it is necessary for farmers to be aggressive in making leaders understand the importance of agriculture to the state and the need to ensure laws do not unnecessarily inhibit agribusiness. After all, the controversy surrounding Walther Farms’ water withdrawal from the South Edisto River led to all kinds of attacks on the farming operation until a compromise was reached.

But it took media reports to bring the issue of the large farming operation’s water plans to light, and not because Walther was trying to operate in secret.

The Surface Water Act of 2010 does not require the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to notify the public of water-use plans by agricultural interests in the same way the agency must before issuing permits to an industrial water user. In the case of water use in volumes at or beyond 5 percent of a river’s safe yield, agribusiness should face the same permitting process as industries.

The objective is not to put undue restrictions on agriculture, which we would not support. It is to ensure the state has in place sensible laws and regulations that protect the environment in a developing state with much reason to protect its bounty of natural resources.

In the end, South Carolina agriculture will need to weigh in on and help craft changes related to public notices and permitting under the Surface Water Act of 2010.

Online:

https://thetandd.com

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March 18

Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina, on real ethics reform:

In South Carolina politics, there’s always room for gun rights debates: Guns on school campuses or in churches; gun concealed-carry laws; gun-tax holidays; and doctors’ discussions of guns with patients.

But who would have guessed that gun advocates would want to weigh in on ethics reform?

Now comes this strange addition to the familiar arguments that proposals to strengthen the state ethics law don’t go far enough, or that they go too far, or that they aren’t necessary in the first place:

Forcing advocacy nonprofits (like gun advocacy groups) to reveal their private donor lists would expose their contributors to harassment or retaliation by public officials criticized by those organizations.

That doesn’t wash. People who don’t stand behind such organizations probably don’t give them money, and that probably motivates those organizations, not their donors, to question ethics reform.

It’s more difficult, however, to guess why so many senators are averse to reform.

Gov. Nikki Haley has openly criticized two lawmakers who she says are tripping up efforts to toughen and clarify ethics laws: Senate President Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Ethics Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who authored an amendment that would have rendered the bill all but worthless.

In general, the governor surmised that opponents to meaningful ethics reform “don’t want independent investigations because they don’t want the finger turned on them.”

Two senators in the Charleston County Legislative Delegation, Democrat Marlon Kimpson and Republican Paul Campbell, backed the Rankin amendment that would have allowed legislators to continue policing themselves on matters of alleged ethical misconduct.

No matter how you look at it, that’s just a bad system.

Sen. Kimpson failed to return calls about his thoughts on ethics reform.

Sen. Campbell seems to be on the fence now. “Nothing is set in stone,” he told us, although he added that he has confidence in the Senate Ethics Committee, composed of senior members of both parties.

Sen. Campbell said he supported the Rankin amendment because it would have eliminated concerns he had regarding the constitutionality of the bill. Specifically, he believed the S.C. Constitution requires the Senate and the House to police themselves.

However, he has since been assured that it would be constitutional for an independent body to handle ethics investigations of General Assembly members, and for House and Senate panels to receive that information and to handle the adjudication internally.

We encourage Mr. Campbell, and Mr. Kimpson, to give their enthusiastic support to sound ethics reform, as espoused in a bill that passed the House.

Constituents deserve to be confident that their elected representatives are handling the public’s business honestly and fairly. The present system leaves room for friends to take care of friends at the expense of the public.

Gov. Haley and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, have both wisely made ethics reform their top issue in this session, but it is in danger of failing - yet again.

All lawmakers who want a General Assembly free of corruption, and who want their constituents to know that’s how they feel, should join them.

Online:

https://www.postandcourier.com

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March 13

The Island Packet, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, on Sunshine Week:

It’s not a sexy topic nor one the average person cares much about. But a lack of access to public information is a real problem that is hurting us all. When government at any level denies or unduly restricts access to information, democracy suffers.

We join the national “Sunshine Week” initiative beginning today to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

And we’re sad to say that the public’s right to know is being obstructed far too often around Beaufort County and across South Carolina.

Freedom of Information requests are routinely denied for questionable reasons, and there’s no recourse for denied parties other than hiring lawyers.

Excessive fees are charged to lessen the likelihood that reporters and citizens can afford copies of public information.

Vaguely written parts of the state’s open-records law are interpreted by governmental bodies in ways that allow them to deny access to information. And sometimes, even when information is turned over, important portions are redacted for no good, legal reason.

It’s enough to leave any reporter or average Joe searching for public information - information that they have every right to access - pulling their hair out and spitting.

It’s not just that important stories don’t make it into the newspaper. It’s that the public is left in the dark about how their government is working and how their dollars are being spent. It gives coverage to those who seek to abuse the public’s trust, and it helps ensure that wrongdoing is never uncovered.

Indeed, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was right in his oft-repeated comment that sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we really want to sniff out government corruption and clear it out, then we must require those in power to adhere to a high level of transparency and openness.

Unfortunately, we are headed in the opposite direction in the Palmetto State. Too often, our public bodies illegally conduct business in closed-door sessions. Judges close court proceedings and seal documents in Beaufort County without going through the required process. And two recent S.C. Supreme Court decisions have further undercut the public’s right to know:

In June, the state’s highest court ruled that public bodies do not have to publish agendas before their regular meetings and they can add to the list of items discussed during the meetings. In other words, a Town Council or County Council or any other public body could discuss and vote on a tax increase without giving taxpayers advance notice of the plan.

In July, the court ruled that autopsy reports are medical records and therefore closed to the public and the media. Media outlets routinely turn to autopsy reports for key information to piece together just how police investigate unusual deaths. The court ruling came after the Sumter County coroner refused to release the autopsy report of a 25-year-old who was shot by police in 2010. Police initially claimed the man had fired on officers. But the local paper, The (Sumter) Item, wasn’t willing to take police at their word. It obtained a copy of the autopsy report from a different source and discovered that there was no gunshot residue on the man’s hands and that he had been shot in the back.

Without access to autopsy reports, similar telling information will not see the light of day, and the public will have to accept the government’s version of events.

Fortunately, some state lawmakers are taking note of the erosion of government transparency.

Rep. Weston Newton, a Republican from Bluffton, has introduced three bills this legislative session to help turn the tide. The first would create an Office of Freedom of Information Act Review to determine whether requests for records were handled correctly. A second would require agendas for regular meetings of public bodies and also require that new items be added at least 24 hours in advance of meetings. And Newton’s final bill would eliminate some of the exemptions that S.C. legislators currently enjoy under the state’s open-records law. For example, some types of correspondence by lawmakers could be obtained via open-records requests.

We look forward to debate on those bills and hope that members of the public will demand that public bodies in South Carolina operate in the sunshine.

Online:

https://www.islandpacket.com

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