South Carolinians have become accustomed to seeing their state placed at or near the bottom of national rankings. Early childhood education, SAT scores, domestic violence, per capita income, physical fitness, cardiac health — the state usually finds itself somewhere between 40 and 50 (and in at least one case 51 — a ranking in which Washington, D.C., is ranked.)
One ranking, however, has received less attention than it should. Early this year, the governor’s Ethics Reform Commission released its report, and among other things pointed out that South Carolina is the only state in the nation that doesn’t require elected officials to disclose any private income. Indeed, the only partial exception to this rule in South Carolina is the Policy Council’s voluntary income source disclosure project, Conflict Watch.
State lawmakers are only required to report the income they make from government sources. What they make from private sources — including companies or industries that reap direct benefits from the bills they sponsor and promote — is not public knowledge. Nor is it anyone’s business (at least according to state law) whether a lawmaker will benefit financially from, say, a vote to put a major highway along a certain route. A year ago, when the Post & Courier revealed that Rep. Jim Merrill (R-Berkeley) had taken almost $160,000 in consulting fees from the S.C. Realtors Association even as he sponsored and vocally promoted legislation favored by the same special interest, there was only one problem: It was all legal. Not only was it legal: Merrill wasn’t even required to disclose it.
That wouldn’t happen outside South Carolina. Granted, officials in other states find ways to get around disclosure laws, and some of those laws are weak. Still, South Carolina’s laws requiring the disclosure of private income are indisputably the weakest of all — because there aren’t any. Consider our disclosure laws compared to those of other Southeastern states:
In Georgia, elected officials must disclose the name of the business from which they receive income if they own 5 percent of the firm or more (or have $5,000 invested in it, whichever is lowest).
In North Carolina, disclosure is required for any income over $5,000 in the last business year. Attorneys are required to disclose fees of more than $10,000 in the last business year, and to indicate whether they earned $10,000 or more from any one of a list of 14 categories of legal representation.
In Alabama, officials must disclose information on all employment in which they or their immediate family members spent at least one-third of their working time. They must also disclose the household income of all immediate family members, with information on sources of income and on businesses in which they or their family member own at least 5 percent stock or are high-ranking employees. And they must disclose all property held by their spouses, their dependents, or themselves.
In Mississippi, officials must disclose information on businesses in which they hold positions, if their total income from those positions exceeds $2,500. Likewise they must disclose the existence of any business in which they hold “ownership” positions, or in which they hold at least $5,000 in assets or a 10 percent interest.
In Tennessee, officials must disclose their own and their family’s income sources exceeding $1,000, and any business in which they hold at least 5 percent financial interest or more than $10,000.
Finally, in Florida, officials are required to reveal individual sources of income if those sources are at least 5 percent of total gross income, or all income over $2,500; business interests in which they earned at least 10 percent of their gross income, or earned at least $5,000; business in which they hold leadership positions; and property in which they hold at least a 5 percent ownership.
Nearly all of these laws could be strengthened in some fashion. Yet all are vastly superior to the absence of any laws governing the revelation of private income sources. Other states’ law codes may not prevent corruption to the degree they should. But at least they don’t actively encourage it.
— Swaim is Communications Manager for the S.C. Policy Council.