The State: Fix S.C. law on subsidies for political events

November 1, 2013 

Gov. Nikki Haley says she has gone further than previous governors by signing an agreement to reimburse the state when her security detail accompanies her on in-state campaign events. And that’s a good thing.

Equally important might be her pledge to make those reimbursements promptly, since she waited 18 months to do that earlier in her administration, as negotiations dragged on over what she owed for security for out-of-state political events. The agreement the governor signed earlier this month with SLED Chief Mark Keel and Ethics Commission director Herb Hayden requires her campaign to pay the state quarterly for the extra cost of providing security when she attends campaign events.

But while those are both positive, the agreement merely spells out the details of how the governor will obey the law, which makes it difficult for us to see it as much more than a political statement. And as a political statement, it falls short of what we would hope to see from a governor who has quite appropriately made ethics reform a priority.

What the agreement doesn’t address is the very question that brought this matter to the fore: who pays for security when the governor attends events that don’t meet her definition of campaign-related but that clearly are political, and clearly can’t be called official state business. This summer, the governor and Hayden insisted there was no need for her campaign to reimburse the state for traveling in a state-owned vehicle driven by a SLED agent to attend a political event in North Carolina for a group that supports N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, because the event wasn’t held in support of Haley’s re-election.

We sympathize with the dilemma that Haley and previous governors have faced when it comes to the cost of state security details, as it would be terribly irresponsible (see Sanford, Mark: Argentina) for them to decline protection for anything they do, official or political or personal. And we feel confident that she isn’t the first governor who has allowed the state to pay for providing her security when she is doing something other than the state’s business.

But as we have previously noted, we believe the Ethics Commission is reading the law too narrowly, by focusing only on a provision that prohibits the use of state resources for candidates’ own election campaigns. Other sections of the law and of the state constitution prohibit the use of state resources for personal benefit, which we believe covers the expenses of anything a governor does that is not state business. That would include a vacation, for example, or leaving South Carolina to attend a purely political function for an out-of-state organization.

The governor’s agreement does note that she will “continue the practice of previous governors” “until such time as legislation is enacted to provide clear legal guidance.” And that’s what we need: a law, passed by our Legislature, that makes it clear that the taxpayers don’t subsidize a governor’s personal or political activities, whether those activities meet the governor’s definition of a “campaign-related event” or not.

And while they’re at it, our lawmakers need to pass all of those other clarifications and improvements to our ethics and campaign law that Haley and her opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, and our editorial board and other reformers on the right and left have been demanding for more than a year now.

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