- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Complaints against South Carolina’s legislators would be independently investigated under an ethics bill that could reach the finish line this session after four years of debate.

If the Senate accepts changes the House approved Thursday on a 101-2 vote, the legislation will go to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he’s optimistic.

“It would be a huge step,” he said.

Otherwise, the differing versions could head to a compromise committee of senators and House members.

Haley has insisted that independent investigations be part of ethics reform since the House Ethics Committee cleared her of allegations in 2012 that she lobbied for employers while in the House. Agreeing with her former colleagues that the state’s ethics laws are too vague, she has pushed ever since to strengthen and clarify them.

Her case prompted Democrats and Republicans in both chambers to declare ethics reform a top priority, but legislation has repeatedly stalled in the Senate.

Currently, House and Senate ethics committees oversee the campaign filings and handle complaints against their colleagues and candidates vying to replace them, while the State Ethics Commission is responsible for overseeing all other public officials. Critics, including Haley, equate the arrangement to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

The legislation would revamp the State Ethics Commission and expand its duties to legislators. However, House and Senate ethics panels would still get the final say over their members.

Rep. Jonathon Hill, who voted “no,” argued the changes don’t go far enough.

“There’s no protection here against politics being part of the process,” said Hill, R-Townville. “This does not eliminate the problem of self-policing, so I have to question why this bill even exists.”

Other legislators argue giving the commission complete authority would require changing the state constitution, as it makes each chamber responsible for punishing its members “for disorderly behavior.”

House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope, the bill’s main sponsor, acknowledged the constitutional clause is open to interpretation.

“I think it may be in there to keep us from dueling and fist-fighting, but some members believe we do in fact have to police ourselves,” he said.

Pope, R-York, argued changes made Thursday will help restore the public’s trust in the system.

Those include who decides whether a legislator likely violated the law and when allegations become public.

Under the House amendment, the revamped commission would make that determination. A probable cause finding would trigger documents becoming publicly available before the case would go to the House or Senate ethics committee for a public hearing.

Under the Senate’s version, the commission would issue recommendations to the legislative panels.

If legislators disagree with the commission’s findings, Pope said, “we have to disagree publicly with the evidence played out. We don’t shut the door and disagree.”

The public will “get to see what happens in this system and I think that’s a tremendous step forward,” he said.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, noted the measure is one among 12 ethics proposals the House sent the Senate last year.

“I am grateful this important component in our reform package is much closer to becoming law,” he said.

Another component Haley’s pushed for could be debated on the House floor next week.

Last month, the Senate passed legislation requiring all elected and public officials to report the sources of their private income - but not how much they are paid. Attempts to require officeholders to report amounts failed.

Currently, officeholders must report only public income sources, such as legislative pay, on their annual “statement of economic interest.”

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