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Good government?

Posted: March 23, 2012 12:50 p.m.
Updated: March 26, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Last week, it was reported that South Carolina ranked among the states most at risk for corruption. In a study conducted by State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International, South Carolina received a grade of “F” and ranked 45th among the 50 states.

According to the State Integrity Investigation, South Carolina earned a “B” in lobbying disclosure, a “B-“ in Procurement and Redistricting, and a “C+” in internal auditing. The state received a “D-“ in political financing, and an “F” in nine other categories: public access to information, executive accountability, judicial accountability, state civil service management, state pension fund management, state insurance commissions, legislative accountability, state budget processes, and ethics enforcement agencies.

We really didn’t need a report to tell us we have problems. The public’s cynicism about government and politicians is pervasive and understandable. It didn’t help this perception that Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned his office earlier this month after the state grand jury indicted him on seven violations of the State Ethics Act to which he pled guilty. Ard’s case is just one in a series of disappointing acts by elected officials.

I’ve heard more times than I can remember that South Carolina has some of the toughest ethics laws in the nation. In the aftermath of Operation Lost Trust in the early1990s, there was a massive overhaul of the state’s ethics laws. Since then, according to the results of the State Integrity Investigation, practically all the other states in the nation have enacted tougher laws than ours. However, South Carolina’s lobbyist disclosure laws, a major focus of the clean-up in the wake of the scandal, still merit a respectable “B” grade.

There is obviously a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the public’s access to information, reporting, and accountability. Some efforts that I am making to improve our good government laws include a bill I am co-sponsoring that would bring the House Ethics Committee more into the open by codifying the duties and procedures of the committee and making clear that documents and information gathered by the committee are made public following a finding of probable cause.

To curb the influence of money in politics, I have sponsored a bill that prevents lobbyist principals from giving campaign contributions to a legislator or a statewide constitutional officer during the January to June session while votes are being cast. The bill also prohibits legislators and statewide constitutional officers from soliciting campaign contributions during that time.

In an effort to address the issue raised by John Rainey in a column published in The State two weeks ago, I filed a bill that provides that anyone required to file statements of economic interest would have to file a final statement of economic interest within 15 days of leaving public office or employment. Just because an elected official leaves office before the filing deadline shouldn’t mean that they shouldn’t have to disclose their interests for the period of time that they were in office.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I voted in favor of an amendment to eliminate the provision that exempts members of the legislature from responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. Removing the exemption would require legislators to follow the same open-records law that everybody else in state and local government has to follow.

Earlier this session, and in a major victory for good government advocates, the General Assembly passed Sen. Sheheen’s bill that establishes the Office of Inspector General. I sponsored the companion bill in the House. This office is directed to eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse in government and should be an effective means to keep government honest and to protect taxpayer dollars.

However, we are only beginning. Now that report cards on the states have been released, the State Integrity Investigation project aims to encourage states to create solutions and enact reforms. I look forward to learning more about ways to improve South Carolina ethics laws to ensure that we have a government that citizens can trust and respect and in which they can have confidence.

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