Updated at 6:20 p.m. on Dec. 15
Lawmakers are carving out new ethics rules that would more clearly define how they should spend campaign funds and how they should conduct themselves in office.
The House Ethics and Freedom of Information Act Study Committee on Monday approved a slew of ethics bills to be pre-filed in December. Most of the bills moved forward without opposition. But several House members debated a measure outlining the use of campaign funds—specifically, whether lawmakers should be allowed to use campaign funds to offset legal expenses prior to being found guilty of civil or criminal violations.
Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, fretted that the bill left no way for donors to recoup funds spent fighting a lawsuit if a lawmaker is found guilty.
But one of the goals of the bill was to give donors a clear understanding of how their donations can be spent, said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, who headed the Campaign Finance Reform Subcommittee. Seventy-five percent of lawmakers on his subcommittee said they would let go of their seat rather than fight a lawsuit because of the harm it would do to their families, according to the Columbia Republican. People could give up in one year their entire pay trying to defend a lawsuit, he said.
“This is not a get rich quick scheme,” said Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, whose campaign account holds approximately $7,000. He thinks many lawmakers couldn’t afford to fight a lawsuit, even if they won, because their accounts typically hold under $10,000.
The bill would prohibit lawmakers from using campaign accounts to pay fines if they are found guilty of ethics violations. The committee voted 18-3 to give the bill a favorable report.
Among the legislation the committee approved were two other bills dealing with ethics complaints. One expands authority of the State Ethics Commission and provides for third party investigation if probable cause is found. The other clarifies distinctions between criminal and civil violations, which are often related to administrative violations, according to Rep. Tommy Pope. The York Republican headed the subcommittee that took up the bills. Pope was elected House Speaker Pro Tempore earlier in December.
The committee also took up a bill to authorize the use of credit cards for campaign funds. Members voted to send the bill back to Finlay’s subcommittee, where lawmakers could complete work on the bill. Finlay said the bill was an attempt at ensuring a paper trail, which cash doesn’t do.
Rep. Derham Cole, R-Spartanburg, is the committee’s chairman. He said the committee will have pre-filed 17 bills before the legislative session starts in January.
Lawmakers approved a whistleblower protection measure brought up at the end of the meeting by Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Camden. The bill removes a $2,000 cap that the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office—a division of the Budget and Control Board—can award state employees for reporting wrongdoing within an agency. Funderburk said the current award amount isn’t enough to compensate for the risk of state workers losing their jobs.