The Ethics Bill: Still Alive, for Now

THE STICKING POINT: SELF-POLICING

A House Judiciary subcommittee met on Tuesday to once again take up the “ethics bill” – H.3945. Versions of the bill have already passed both the Senate and the House, but rather than sending it to a conference committee, the House chose to amend the bill.

The key sticking point has to do with who will investigate and judge legislators accused of ethics violations. The Senate version of the bill is at least honest: it avoids any pretense of reform, leaving the current system of legislative self-policing in place. The House version also continues to give legislators the power to judge each other but attempts to provide political cover for an essentially corrupt process by creating a new 16-member ethics committee made up of eight legislators and eight members of the public – the latter chosen by legislators.

In Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting, House members introduced two amendments to H.3945. The first, introduced by Representative Greg Delaney (R- Chester), would create a new ethics commission made up of four lawmakers (two from the House and Senate), four executive branch appointees, and four judicial appointees. The new commission would have the power to both investigate and punish public officials (legislative and executive branch members) accused of ethics violations. This might give the appearance of reform, but it would still allow legislators to sit in judgment of their friends and colleagues. Members of the committee acknowledged that the Senate wouldn’t accept the changes made by this new amendment but passed it anyway.

Representative Walt McLeod (D- Newberry) introduced a similar amendment that would give the newly created commission the power to investigate public officials but would leave the powers of ethics violation punishment to the respective chamber of which they’re members. In short, legislators would still have the final say on their friends and colleagues’ ethics violations. Representative McLeod’s amendment failed to pass.

The meeting wasn’t entirely a waste, though. The subcommittee members adopted the Senate language concerning public official private income source disclosure. Each version of H.3945 required public officials to disclose private sources of income but the House version had a threshold of disclosure for income higher than $2,500 while the Senate version would require all sources regardless of the amount to be disclosed. In discussion of the income source disclosure provision, Representative Thomas Pope (R- York) referenced the Policy Council’s Project Conflict Watch as an example of how legislators should disclose private sources of income.

The subcommittee is scheduled to meet again in Thursday at 9 am.

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