- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

Sept. 23

The Herald, Rock Hill, South Carolina, on domestic violence in state:

South Carolina once again has ranked worst in the nation for deadly violence against women. This is the fourth time that the state has ranked first and the 18th consecutive year it has ranked in the top 10.

But South Carolina cannot accept this as our destiny. And, with significant changes in state law regarding penalties for domestic violence and ongoing attention to the problem, the state finally appears to be taking steps to reduce the violence against women.

According to rankings released Tuesday by the Violence Policy Center, South Carolina had a rate of 2.32 women killed per 100,000 in 2013, the worst in the nation. That’s more than twice the national average and represents 57 known deaths, compared with 50 a year earlier, when the state ranked second in the nation in the number of women killed by men.

But earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a substantive domestic violence bill that increased penalties for those convicted of criminal domestic violence. The effort also was supported by both Gov. Nikki Haley and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who lobbied hard for reforms.

Haley created a special task force, which still is in place, to study the causes of domestic violence and find ways to reduce it. Wilson was joined by local prosecutors from across the state who worked with him to bring about new and stiffer penalties for domestic abusers.

Victim advocate groups also were effective in calling for changes. When lobbying lawmakers, they noted that penalties were greater for hunting out of season than for domestic abuse.

The bill passed by the Legislature gave prosecutors and judges more options in dealing with domestic abuse. The new law creates a four-tiered system of possible crimes with which suspects can be charged, ranging from a misdemeanor with a possible 90-day sentence to a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

And those convicted of the most serious charges could be barred from owning a gun for up to a decade.

But while these changes in the law are a crucial step in dealing with domestic abuse, the state’s high rate of violence is not likely to change until we also address the root causes of violence against women.

We are encouraged that Haley’s task force, which has been meeting all year, has proposed dozens of wide-ranging recommendations that promote a comprehensive approach to the problem. Proposals include training and hiring more 911 operators, improving documentation of the crime scene and increasing the number of shelters for abused women and their children statewide.

In addition to changing the law, we also must change the culture. We must encourage friends and neighbors to report domestic abuse when they see evidence of it. We need to teach young males nonviolent ways to resolve domestic disputes. We need to provide more safe havens for abused women so they can leave violent relationships. We need to teach law enforcement officers the most effective ways to handle cases of domestic abuse in the field and later, when questioning victims and suspects.

While South Carolina has a long way to go, changes taken this year appear likely to yield results. With hard work, maybe the state finally can lose its ranking among the top-10 states for domestic violence.




Sept. 29

The Post and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina, on state ethics laws and legislative spending:

The broad range of ethical questions raised by The Post and Courier’s ongoing investigation into legislative spending immediately points to the need to clearly define what is legal and what isn’t.

Many of the dubious expenditures of campaign money cited in that report Sunday aren’t necessarily against the law, even if they ought to be. Rules governing expenditures of campaign contributions for travel, for example, need to be narrowly drawn. Public policy issues regarding natural resources can be settled without hunting trips to Alaska or New Mexico.

Indeed, the case against former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, argues against a broad interpretation of ethics rules to justify legislative expenses. Mr. Harrell resigned his seat last year after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds for personal benefit.

S.C. Common Cause director John Crangle terms state ethics laws “a tangled mess” that allows virtually any expenditure. It’s time for the Legislature to clarify matters and enact tougher laws governing their own activities.

At this point, the unwillingness of legislators to complete comprehensive ethics reform is beginning to define the General Assembly. Given the questions raised in our report, South Carolinians should be asking why the Legislature has been unable or unwilling to wrap up ethics reform. Reform bills have been debated extensively over the last three sessions with no resolution.

Last session, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler cited Speaker Harrell’s resignation as an object lesson on ethics reform, saying, “If we can’t get it done this year, we’ll never get it done.”

And then by June, the Legislature had failed once again to complete its work to strengthen ethics laws.

One sticking point is that each legislative body has its own ethics panel to investigate and rule on ethics complaints concerning its respective members. Every other elected official in the state has to face the State Ethics Commission.

Clearly, legislators are reluctant to give up in-house ethics review, allowing them to be judged by their colleagues. But that change must be a part of a meaningful ethics reform package.

One practice cited in our report really isn’t a gray area under existing ethics rules. Elected officials aren’t allowed to buy gasoline with campaign funds, according to the State Ethics Commission. They are allowed to receive mileage reimbursements for vehicle use while campaigning.

One legislator defended his broad use of campaign funds to purchase fuel by saying that “every day is an election day.” Such an assertion deserves to be tested before an independent ethics panel.

Legislators ought to be similarly challenged for using campaign money to buy gas, then getting reimbursed for mileage from state coffers.

Some of the questionable uses of campaign money are likely being reviewed in the ongoing investigation headed by First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe. The scope of Mr. Pascoe’s investigation, undertaken in the wake of Mr. Harrell’s case, isn’t fully known, but it at least ought to be adequate to shake the Legislature out of its lethargy on ethics reform.

If ethics laws are to be meaningful, and if the Legislature is to enjoy the public’s trust and respect, the Legislature will have to tighten ethics laws, including the use of campaign funds.

Further delay says that the Legislature isn’t really serious about ethical government.




Sept. 30

The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, South Carolina, on decision to remove Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds:

A new Winthrop Poll released Wednesday backs up the belief that a majority (two-thirds) of South Carolinians support Gov. Nikki Haley and the Legislature in their decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds. But inside the numbers is a message that many, particularly Republican voters, stand by the flag as a symbol of Southern pride.

The decision came after nine African-Americans, including the pastor who was a state senator, were gunned down in their Charleston church by a man who used the Confederate flag as a symbol in espousing racism and violence. The symbolism of the banner being used in such way led to Gov. Nikki Haley calling for its removal, and even many ardent supporters of the flag’s place in South Carolina history backed away from it flying in an official state capacity.

Breaking down the survey results by race, 54 percent of white respondents said furling the flag was the right decision, while support was 93 percent among African-Americans, who long have argued the flag must be recognized as a symbol of oppressing black people.

Just how much the Charleston tragedy changed opinions can be seen in the response by nearly 50 percent that they disapproved of the flag before this summer - a percentage not supported by November 2014 Winthrop Poll numbers showing only a third felt the flag should no longer continue to fly on Statehouse grounds.

But nearly half of those surveyed Sept. 20-27 (47 percent) said the flag is a symbol of Southern pride and not of racial conflict. Forty percent responded that the banner is more a symbol of conflict than pride. Of political significance, nearly half of those who lean GOP in a Republican-dominated state said they their personal choice would be to let the Confederate flag continue to fly.

As to those who believe Haley will pay a political price for her leadership on the flag issue, comparing the poll numbers with those from a survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling in early September offers insight on how the flag issue might play out politically, particularly for Republicans.

The PPP survey showed Haley’s approval rating at 53 percent, up from 51 percent in February. But the support has shifted.

Thirty-nine percent of Democrats approved of Haley, up from just 17 percent in February. Among Republicans, support fell from 76 percent to 67 percent.

In the Winthrop poll, 55 percent of respondents approved of Haley, nearly identical to her overall approval rating in March.

Among Republicans and those who lean Republican, her approval rating is a strong 68 percent. But that number is down from the 78 percent she garnered from GOP supporters among the general population in March.

Meanwhile, the GOP-led General Assembly received a stamp of approval from 45 percent of respondents.

Haley is not eligible to run for another term as governor and her political future could be focused nationally. Her stand on the flag and the continuing level of support she enjoys are enough to maintain her lofty status nationally. But the potential political fallout for others, particularly Republicans, over the Confederate flag issue remains to be seen.

Just how much the flag is or is not an issue after its removal from the Statehouse this summer will not be fully known until 2016, particularly in GOP primary races in the many heavily Republican areas of the state.




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