- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - After four years of fighting, the South Carolina Senate approved a bill allowing independent ethics investigations of lawmakers.

The bill was one of two passed Wednesday. The other proposal requires lawmakers to disclose almost all sources of private income - but not how much they are paid.

Gov. Nikki Haley and the House have pushed for ethics reform since 2012, only to see their attempts stop at the Senate door.

Sen. Larry Martin has been at the front of the four-year fight in his chamber. Last year, he ended up voting against his own ethics bill that he sponsored after an amendment watered it down so much he couldn’t support it any more.

He said Wednesday’s vote was a big step forward.

“There are going to be critics who suggest this isn’t real ethics reform. You know what I’ll say to them? You haven’t been in the trenches over here making law and getting something passed.”

Currently, ethics violations by House members and senators are investigated by members of their own body. The bill passed by the Senate will revamp the State Ethics Commission to eight members - four picked by the governor, two picked by House and Senate Democrats and two by House and Senate Republicans.

Six of the eight members would have to agree for an investigation to begin. The bill also allows the commission to punish people who file frivolous claims by making them pay investigation costs and revert back to the old system in five years unless the Legislature renews the proposal.

Martin, R-Pickens, called it a first step. Senators defeated a proposal that would require public office holders to list their income in ranges, like $50,000 to $100,000, instead of the exact amount.

“Just stating who gave you money without giving the amount is not the whole story,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston.

Martin said he will make sure that idea gets consideration in 2017, along with requiring nonprofit organizations to have to reveal who gives the money they spend on elections and other political campaigns. Currently the groups can take unlimited donations with no disclosure.

The push for ethics reform began in 2012 after Haley was cleared of allegations she illegally lobbied for employers while she was a House member. The governor agreed the laws were too vague. Haley’s spokesman said in a statement that ethics reform has never been about the governor or the Legislature.

“Today, four years in the making, was a huge step forward. Now it’s time for the legislature to finish the job, bring this home, and show South Carolina that all our elected officials truly work for them,” spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.

The House and Senate will now work out their differences on the current bills.

Sen. Gerald Malloy said he feels better about the bills because no one walked away feeling too excited Wednesday.

“We got as good a product as we could get,” said Malloy, D-Darlington. “It seems everybody walked away a little bit unhappy. If you see anybody jumping around that is too happy that means we have got a problem.”

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins

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