Ethics reform: when a bad bill is worse than no bill

John Crangle
Director, Common Cause South Carolina

The State’s readers were treated recently to the musings of a pair of rookie legislators, Rep. Kirkman Finlay and Sen. Thomas McElveen, joined by JoAnne Day of the League of Women Voters, a newcomer to ethics reform, who praised House bill 3945 and ridiculed legislators who opposed the purported ethics-reform bill as “perfectionists,” “concerned” or “unwilling” ( “We must move forward on ethics,” Aug. 14).

It is not surprising, perhaps, that three people so recently acquainted with State House politics should fall for a fake reform bill like H.3945.

In particular, Rep. Finlay’s brief tenure in the House would not encourage much confidence in his actual interest in reform. He was one of the chief sponsors of two looney bills designed to rescue House Speaker Bobby Harrell from the criminal probe by the attorney general into his use of some $300,000 of campaign funds for pay for his personal airplane. Finlay joined with allies to fix a bill to remove Wilson as prosecutor in the Harrell case and empower Harrell himself and the president pro tempore of the Senate to appoint a special prosecutor to take Wilson’s place; they even proposed a constitutional amendment to strip Wilson of his prosecutorial authority.

Common Cause of South Carolina opposed H.3945 when it came to a vote in the Senate at the end of this past session; it was defeated by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives.

No honest analysis of H.3945 could conclude that it was a serious reform proposal. It failed to address the most critical ethics problems that have plagued South Carolina in recent years. It failed to clean up the chronic problem of the misuse of campaign funds for non-campaign purpose. Just in the past few years, a number of officials have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar: Gov. Mark Sanford used campaign money to go on a hunting trip in Ireland; Lt. Gov. Ken Ard was thrown out of office after he bought clothes; Rep. Harold Mitchell was fined more than $20,000 for misuses; and Sen. Robert Ford was referred to the attorney general for buying sex novelties.

Not only did H.3945 not stop the misuse of campaign money for non-campaign purposes; it even proposed to allow candidates to use such funds to pay for family members to go on trips.

The bill did nothing to stop legislative ethics committees from pretending to police their own members. The failure of the House Ethics Committee to do anything about Bobby Harrell’s out-of-control spending of campaign money on his private airplane clearly shows how conflicted and frightened the panel was.

Of course, H.3945 had no whistle-blower measure to protect government employees who report embezzlement, bribery and corruption, even though South Carolina is plagued by such crimes. It had no public integrity unit of the sort proposed by the attorney general to attack public corruption.

As bad as 3945 was, there were many legislators who wanted it to pass so they could say for the next generation that they has passed a wonderful ethics reform bill while they continued to misbehave for the rest of their careers.

In the end, Gov. Nikki Haley declared H.3945 an income-disclosure bill that didn’t address ethics, and Sen. Vincent Sheheen walked away from it, as both candidates for governor clearly saw that the bill fell far below their minimum standards for ethics reform.

The next two years will be a better time for passing a real ethics reform bill, as the 2016 elections will have both the House and Senate facing the voters. By then, perhaps another scandal will further demonstrate the need for a real ethics-reform law.

John Crangle is executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina, a longtime member of the SC Progressive Network.

Network takes healthcare message on the road

logo3The SC Progressive Network is in the process of training crews of volunteers to launch its latest project, the Healthy Democracy Road Show, designed to educate and mobilize voters on the state of democracy and healthcare in South Carolina. Road crews will do door-to-door canvassing in targeted neighborhoods, and a show is being developed to liven up events in selected towns across South Carolina.

We spent the last legislative session targeting lawmakers on Medicaid expansion. Now, over the summer and early fall, we will focus on targeted communities across the state, taking our message to the people most affected by state lawmakers’ refusal to accept federal funding — our own tax money.

In July and early August, trainings for organizers are being held. For information, or to schedule a training in your area, call 803-808-3384 or email network@scpronet.com. The next training is on July 21 at the ILA Hall in Charleston.

This clip is from a training in Columbia, presented by Network Director Brett Bursey.

University Libraries offers glowing review of Network’s booklet about Modjeska Simkins

By Herb Hartsook
University Libraries South Carolina Political Collections
(posted June 30 on A Capital Blog and re-posted with permission)

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Modjeska Simkins was a remarkable human rights activist and a uniquely powerful speaker. Becci Robbins captures her essence in a new booklet, Modjeska Monteith Simkins: A South Carolina Revolutionary, just published by the South Carolina Progressive Network. The 38-page booklet is clearly a labor of love by Robbins, the Network’s Communications Director.

Mrs. Simkins’ voice is present throughout the booklet which features lavish quotations. Robbins places Mrs. Simkins both in time and place with a detailed biographical sketch. The booklet also includes rich illustrations and statements by people such as SC Political Collections donors Matthew Perry and Candy Waites who knew and were influenced by Mrs. Simkins.

Until a full-length biography is produced, this forms the best treatment on the life and important role played by this forceful human rights activist.

A June 26 reception at Mrs. Simkins’ Marion Street home, which houses the Network’s offices, celebrated the new publication. Brett Bursey, founder and director of the Progressive Network and devoted Simkins mentee, served as master of ceremonies and gave a stirring talk describing plans for the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights, a new endeavor by the Network which will train and encourage individuals to follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Simkins and “take on issues of economic and social injustice.”

3,000 copies of the booklet, which was made possible by a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission, will be distributed to libraries around the state and interested individuals.  An electronic copy is available on the Network’s website.

Mrs. Simkins once noted, “Start each sunrise as a new day.  Start out believing there’s good to be done and people to do it for.”  That spirit still lives.

SC voters remain confused about photo ID

Brett Bursey
Executive Director, SC Progressive Network

Contrary to news reports, registered voters do not have to have a photo ID to vote in South Carolina.

There is widespread misinformation regarding the new state law. Numerous television reports leading up to the June 10 primary told voters they must have one of the five approved photo IDs to vote. Truth is, voters with none of the approved IDs can present their old (non-photo) voter registration card and cast a paper ballot.

Unlike the traditional provisional paper ballot that could be rejected by the county board of elections, the federal court ruled that the legitimacy of the paper ballots cast by voters without photo IDs is determined by the voter. The paper ballots will be counted unless evidence is presented that the voter lied about why they do not have a photo ID.

The two most salient points of the appeals court ruling were:

  • “As we will explain, South Carolina’s new law, Act R54, likewise does not require a photo ID to vote.” (pg. 2, second paragraph)
  • “First, to state the obvious, Act R54 as now pre-cleared is not the R54 enacted in May 2011.” (pg. 40 – Judge Bates’ concurring opinion)

The SC Progressive Network spent three years fighting this regressive law, and was a party to the appeal. We will not let state Attorney Gen. Alan Wilson, Gov. Nikki Haley and others go unchallenged in their claim that they beat the Section 5 ruling and that our new law requires voters to present a photo ID.

As we have said before, the photo ID campaign was a shameless ploy to suppress the vote — expensive political theater that only served to confuse voters. Unfortunately, they are still confused. Our work to educate South Carolina voters continues.

What ails the VA is chronic under-staffing

By J. David Cox Sr.
national president of the American Federation of Government Employees

The public’s outrage over excessive wait times and rigged record keeping at Veterans Affairs hospitals is more than justified. As a former VA nurse, I understand all too well that depriving veterans of timely access to care is a disservice to them and their sacrifice to this nation.

But cleaning house in the VA’s executive ranks will only treat the symptom. The disease plaguing the VA healthcare system is chronic under-staffing of physicians and other frontline providers.

Until we fill thousands of vacant positions, open closed hospital beds and provide more dollars for building and maintaining medical facilities, we will never heal what ails the VA.

Physicians are dealing with excessive caseloads and insufficient support staff. Since 2009, 2 million veterans entered the VA health care system for a net increase of 1.4 million new patients. Each physician should be responsible for no more than 1,200 patients at a given time, according to the VA’s own guidelines, yet many VA doctors are treating upwards of 2,000 patients each.

Simply put, there isn’t enough time in the day for the available doctors to treat every veteran who is seeking care in a timely fashion.

Compounding matters is a performance system that sets unrealistic goals and incentivizes managers to increase the number of patients served, instead of improving the quality of care. Rather than face the under-staffing issue head-on and risk poor ratings, many managers have taken the easy way out and have cooked the books to mask the wait times.

But blaming those managers for a performance system that was doomed from the start won’t help our veterans get the care they seek any faster.

Truth be told, there is nothing wrong with the VA that can’t be healed by what is right with the VA: the frontline providers who care for our veterans every day.

No one is complaining about the quality of care our veterans receive. That’s because the federal employees who look after our nation’s heroes work hard each and every day to provide them with world-class service.

Unfortunately, those same employees have lived in fear of speaking out about the problems they witness due to an established history of retaliation, including loss of duties and unfounded disciplinary actions. Our members have paid a heavy price for voicing concerns, submitting letters to agency leaders, raising issues in labor management meetings, and testifying before Congress on wait time issues and veterans’ access to care. When they have sounded the alarm, our members have faced retaliation and intimidation time and time again.

Employees shouldn’t feel afraid to speak up when they see managers more concerned with securing bonuses than providing patients with timely access to care for critical medical conditions. In fact, they should be encouraged to bring up these issues so they can be rectified before more veterans go without the treatment they so desperately need.

The waitlist and understaffing issues are one and the same. Until Congress gives the VA the resources to hire enough frontline clinicians to meet demand, our veterans will continue to face long waits. And to be clear, sending veterans to expensive health care providers outside the VA system on a massive scale will not fix the underlying resource deficiencies plaguing our veterans medical centers.

According to the Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, developed each year by leading veterans groups, the Veterans Health Administration is facing a $2 billion funding shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year and another $500 million shortfall for fiscal 2016.

It’s time for the VA to get back to basics and focus on improving access to care for our nation’s veterans. The agency must cut excess management layers and use those resources to boost frontline staffing of doctors, nurses and others directly involved in patient care. The growth of middle management positions within the agency has ballooned to unprecedented levels, from fewer than 300 in 1995 to more than 1,700 by a recent count, costing taxpayers $203 million annually.

The VA long has been held up as a model healthcare delivery system that all other hospitals should emulate. The care our veterans receive is second to none, but that only counts when our veterans actually are treated.

J. David Cox Sr. is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide and Chair of the AFL-CIO’s Union Veterans Council.

New Legacy Project: Contradiction as Truth

By Daniel Deweese
Columbia, SC

When we were first formulating the New Legacy Project, Becci shrewdly pointed out that “New Legacy” is a contradiction. How can something be new and at the same time be a legacy? If there is a lesson from Marxist (Hegelian) dialectics, it is that truth emerges from such paradoxes and contradictions. Starting from close to a zero point, a one emerges and the repetition continues, followed by two and three. Every emergence is constituted by a legacy, every legacy thereby produces some thing new. The New Legacy Project has emerged as the result of the work of Modjeska Simkins and now the SC Progressive Network.

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This New Legacy Project, this contingent is not contingent. It is necessary. One simply has to observe the growth of right wing fascist-nationalist movements, the ever increasing influence or should I say ownership of democracy by big capital and the  looming ecological crises to see that the New Legacy Project is a necessity.

There is in absence in our movement. What is missing? Students and young people. Gone are the student and youth movements of the ’60s, perhaps only briefly rekindled during the Occupation. A movement that was quickly crushed. What has happened to a once dynamic emancipatory force?

We must look for answers in the inescapable phenomena of ideology. Youth are interpelated, that is addressed as subjects, by the ‘power structures’ as Modjeska correctly identified them, as subjects of pure hedonism. Consume, don’t think too much, watch TV, be your ‘true self” ,which is another way of putting the narcissistic (superego) imperative (Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide, 2013).

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As a student this is not only my own anecdotal experience, it is also supported by clinical and academic data. However, this is is not a case study. This is a call to action.

The New Legacy Project possesses the potential to undermine this ideology, connecting with student organizations and thereby reaching other youth who persist in a state of apathy. We can only rekindle the  dream of an emancipatory collective pursuing freedom by a creating a new legacy.

Email newlegacy@scpronet.com for details.

SC Congressional town hall meeting NOT “open to the public”

Wade Fulmer
Columbia, SC

On April 16, the 7:30 a.m. morning television news announced that there would be a “town hall meeting” … “open to the public” with SC’s congressional delegation at 4 p.m. The town hall meeting was to be a part of the day’s programming of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, the town hall meeting at 4 p.m., a part of “Washington night”, all to be held at the Columbia downtown Marriott. I phoned the Marriott which confirmed and read to me a schedule of the day’s activities.

Having experienced some of SC’s individual politicians’ past town hall meetings, it seemed beyond belief that the whole of the members of S.C.’s congressional delegation would ever expose themselves together “to the public”, to the people, at any time.

People, citizens, constituents, the congressional delegation “town hall meeting…” was NOT “open to the public”.

When we arrived, we walked down the corridor to where the business, corporate, and lobbyist games crowd attendees were mingling with members of the delegation before the 4 p.m. hour. I, and friend, Bill Kreml, were stopped at an entrance table and were directed to another table to “register” for the town hall meeting. There, we were asked if we were members of the chamber? I said, no, we were there for the town hall meeting.

The political elitists’ bomb was then droned on our ears that each would have to pay $125 to attend. I reminded the staff person that the town hall meeting was “open to the public”, that we were SC constituents and veterans and that we should be allowed to attend the “open to the public” town hall meeting. She persisted and I asked to speak with someone in charge. She crossed over to quietly talk with another staff. That staff then joined her to repeat that we each would have to pay $125 to attend.

I then asked for the name of the chamber’s president, that I would mention him in my report to media about their “open to the public” town hall meeting, but now, NOT open. She hesitated. I waited. She then gave me the name of the chamber’s president and CEO Otis Rawl, (803-255-2585). I assured her I would report their denial of our attendance. It was later reported that only Republican delegation members attended, and that three delegation members, Gowdy, Clyburn and Scott did not attend.

The “town hall meeting” … “open to the public” was NOT open to the public, but excluded the public for lack of paying what could be called a constituent charge of $125. The town hall meeting was a sham, a PR work of exclusion of the public, of the people. This sham and citizen exclusion seems no more than another example of plutocracy, corporate and elitist hypocrisy, of cover charge and denial of congressional delegation by non-transparency workings for special interests, and of the continuing politics of money and status quo non-representation in lieu of representation for the people.

We the people must not and shall not be silent. Money in politics, congressional and legislatures, must no longer be tolerated. Profiteering elitist moneychangers of non-representation and shame shall be held accountable. 2014, the people, we the constituents, workers, families, military, veterans, jobless, and seniors will vote out incumbents of Washington and states whom prey on dollars and power paid for by the taxpaying public, while avoided by non-taxpaying corporates and wealthy tax dodgers.

Cowardly members of congress and legislatures, of greed and arrogance shall be booted out. Non-representatives, sell out office holders, corporate cronies of economic and wars mayhem do not and will not ever represent the people, humanity, or nation. Slam out the shams. The town hall meetings will be “open to the public”, of, by, and for the people, 2014.

Homophobic lawmakers in glass houses…

By Charlie Smith
Charleston, SC

There are between 200,000 and 300,000 gay people in the state of South Carolina. What we have learned as gay citizens in SC in the past two months is that we have no right to be present in the literature or even the policies of our own public colleges and universities. We are unfit for service on the Boards of Trustees (but not necessarily the presidencies) and the General Assembly has the right to cut off the funding of public institutions of higher learning if those institutions’ policies in any way allow their closeted LGBT students to come to new and positive understandings of themselves as human beings. It is amazing what positive outcomes can happen to people when they are removed from the stifling influences of those who have taught them to be ashamed of themselves, like Bright and Fair, who, by the way, are neither.

It is an important function of our colleges and universities to provide better tools for self-understanding than those provided by Leviticus. Believe it or not there have been a few somewhat more positive literary and scientific revelations about human sexuality than Leviticus since 1000 BCE. Christians like Bright and Fair were still riding dinosaurs then. Now dinosaurs like Bright and Fair are more apt to be riding the backs of gay people.

The real shame here is that the General Assembly has no means of bringing their own closeted gay members to the correct understanding of themselves, as hypocrites who use their closets for snipers’ nests of course. Perhaps Lee Bright and Mike Fair should turn their attentions to disclosing and discrediting their own closeted colleagues and leave our colleges and universities alone.

If they are that obsessed with rooting out homosexuality, why not start in their own backyard, the SC House and Senate? We could even include the executive and judicial branches if we really wanted to be thorough. There are lots of folks you can start with…and they are almost all in Bright’s and Fair’s own party. You can actually Google it. Let’s get started, Mike and Lee. Who’s going to be first?

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Calling all SC progressive political junkies

SC Progressive Network • SC Progressive Voter Coalition

Spring strategy conference. Join us on Saturday, April 26, 10am – 5pm, for a day of talking shop.
Dinner and social 5-6pm
Teamsters Local 509 Union Hall
2604 Fish Hatchery Rd., West Columbia, SC

This statewide conference will be held at the spacious new Teamsters’ Hall in West Columbia. We will finalize plans for the Network’s ground game through the end of the legislative session, the primary elections and the November general elections. The agenda will include our nonpartisan voter education work on Medicaid expansion, as well as the plans for our engagement in Republican and Democratic races.

A full agenda is being developed, and will be posted at least a week before the conference. Please let us know your thoughts about items or issues you want to see included in the day’s agenda. Send email to network@scpronet.com or attend an upcoming Network meeting near you.

Please confirm your attendance so we can have enough conference materials for everyone. Registration fee of $20 includes lunch and dinner. RSVP required for meals. Pay at the door. (But nobody will be turned away for lack of funds.)

Help grow the grassroots!

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What would Jesus do?

By Jeff Koob
Columbia, SC

We’re undoubtedly the most powerful nation on earth, and arguably the most prosperous. All of the other major industrialized nations recognize health care as a basic human right, not a privilege.

Republicans who oppose this principle are on the wrong side of history. They say they’re against the Affordable Health Care Act because it’s unworkable, but have no alternative plan to care for people who are too poor to get preventive health services, or too disabled to support themselves financially. The conservative hardcore doesn’t think that the government should be responsible for caring for our neediest citizens, even in times of relative prosperity.

Many Republicans in the SC legislature want to turn down Medicaid funds that would prevent illness and save lives, purely on ideological grounds. The federal funds SC turns down will go to other states.

What’s happened to Christian values like, “love thy neighbor as thyself”? When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he told the story of the Good Samaritan. Legislators who profess to be Christians seem to be more wedded to the values of dog-eat-dog capitalism: “Every man for himself.”

They are like the priest and the Levite who passed by their injured neighbor, unconcerned with his plight. They need to put the welfare of the neediest of their constituents above their more-conservative-than-thou political posturing.

IMG_1807Jeff Koob (wearing blue hat) was among 17 people arrested on March 18 for blocking the road outside the SC State House as part of a sustained lobbying effort to pressure lawmakers as they debated the “Nullify Obamacare” bill. Read more about South Carolina’s Truthful Tuesday movement here.

Nullifying the nullifiers; a political primer

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SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey challenges Sen. Tom Davis outside Senate chambers before senators take up the “Nullify Obamacare” bill. Truthful Tuesday activists have been lobbying lawmakers since the legislature reconvened on Jan. 14.

The “Nullify Obamacare” bill was voted down in the SC Senate late Wednesday night, with a vote of 33 opposed to nine in favor of the House-passed version. It’s complicated, but here’s a breakdown.

Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) completely rewrote H- 3101, which expressly rejected Medicaid expansion and regulated federal ACA Navigators. (The Network was among the groups in South Carolina awarded a grant to help people navigate the insurance marketplace to be in compliance with the new health care law.)

The amended bill died after Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell ruled that Davis’ amendment was not germane to the House version. McConnell, who serves as president of the Senate, said of the House version, “I was having trouble understanding what that bill really did.”

Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) raised a point of order that the regulations placed on Navigators had nothing to do with the original bill. McConnell agreed, and ruled Davis’ entire amendment out of order.

In a move seen as disrespectful in the body that prides itself on being deliberative and cordial, Davis appealed McConnell’s ruling to the Senate floor. Twenty-eight senators, 14 from each party, upheld the decision to kill Davis’ amended bill.

With Davis’ version of H-3101 dead, the vote then was called on the original House version that even Davis had declared unconstitutional. Only nine Republicans voted to adopt the “Nullify Obamacare” version of the bill. In the end, 19 Republicans joined 14 Democrats to reject the bill on a 33 – 9 vote.

That only nine of 28 Republican senators took the rigid Tea Party stance against “Obamacare” is seen by SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey as “a rare victory for rational thought in the legislature.”

That said, Bursey cautioned that the damage has already been done, calling the time-sapping legislative posturing “bad political theater.” South Carolinians are already suffering from the state’s refusal to participate in the Affordable Care Act, with more than 1,000 deaths predicted here this year because lawmakers refused to accept Medicaid expansion money (which, we remind you, is OUR tax dollars.)

The death of H-3101 doesn’t mean that South Carolina lawmakers will stop obstructing the ACA. South Carolina is still refusing money for a state insurance marketplace and Medicaid expansion. The Davis bill would have added regulating state Navigators and blocking public bodies from helping people get insurance to the state’s anti-Obamacare campaign.

“A goal of our Truthful Tuesday protests,” Bursey said, “was to get people talking, change the dialogue, and reduce the Tea Party influence on Republicans. That is happening.”