On Leadership PACs


Why I filed H. 3077

Sometimes efforts to fix a problem actually make the problem worse.

Buried in a package of 15 rules changes that were quickly adopted by the House on a voice vote during the organizational session on December 2nd was an amendment to House Rule 4.16 which banned legislators from having a “Leadership PAC.” I do support the notion that House and Senate leadership should not be allowed to wield the power of a large PAC as a carrot or as a stick over the members of the body in which they preside the way former Speaker Bobby Harrell did.

Sadly, this new rule does not accomplish it’s stated purpose.

Notwithstanding Section 8-13-1340, a member of the House shall not, directly or indirectly, establish, finance, maintain, or control any entity including, but not limited to, a noncandidate committee that receives or makes contributions as defined in Section 8-13-1300. This rule does not apply to a candidate committee or a legislative caucus committee.

I filed H. 3077 to strike this new rule for the following reasons:

1. Nothing is said about “leadership.” This doesn’t ban leadership from having PACs, it bans all members from having PACs. Why shouldn’t House members be able to raise money to help their friends out, or to oppose their enemies? After all, that’s exactly what our own former Sen. Jim DeMint did with the Senate Conservatives Fund, which played a significant role in the elections of 2008 elections of Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Pat Toomey, and the 2010 elections of Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Rand Paul. As DeMint famously said, “I would rather have 10 Marco Rubios than 30 Arlen Specters.” Would any conservative argue that replacing Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter, and others was a bad thing for DeMint to have done?

2. Nothing is said about “PACs.” The actual term this rule uses is a noncandidate committee, which could, conceivably, advocate for or against issues as much as for or against candidates. In fact, South Carolina has no legal definition at all for a “PAC.” This blurry line cannot be fixed in a House rule; it will have to be addressed statutorily.

3. This rule specifically exempts legislative caucus committees. Caucus committees are essentially “super” PACs with different rules and higher contribution limits. The current Republican Caucus chairman also happens to be House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister. The Speaker of the House, Jay Lucas, also has outsized influence on Republican Caucus decisions by virtue of his position. If we don’t want leadership getting involved in each others races, then why exempt caucuses? It's worth noting that the House Republican Caucus did contribute to several House incumbents who had challengers in the 2014 primary.

You may dislike the role money plays in politics. I understand that. However, if allowed to stand, this new House rule will not reduce the role money plays in SC politics, rather, it will put more of it into the hands of House leadership. To use a crude analogy, it is like disarming legal gun owners while allowing thugs and criminals to walk the streets with guns.

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. That’s what I’m doing with H. 3077.

After Harrell: The Greatest Corruption of All


A Challenge for the Next Speaker of the House Note: a previous version of this post indicated the Governor plays a role in judicial selection, but this is factually incorrect. This post has been corrected.

Sometimes, I’m a pretty embarrassed South Carolinian. Though we could be described, at least here in the Upstate, as “the buckle on the Bible Belt,” we have a way of frequently making unpleasant political headlines.

It started with a former Governor, now Congressman, who said he “hiked the Appalachian trail” when he was actually visiting his “soul mate” who was not his wife (a saga that is still playing out like a soap opera), to a Lieutenant Governor forced to resign in disgrace after multiple campaign finance violations (in the private sector, this is known as “embezzlement”), to 8 Sheriffs in the last 4 years indicted or investigated for a variety of fraudulent behavior, including racketeering and bribe-taking, finally climaxing in the indictment of Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell just days ago for violations that dwarf those of former Lieutenant Governor Ken Ard.

But what you won’t hear in the media is the greatest corruption of all: our very system of government is compromised.

Oh, we make a show of the three-branch balance of power that our founders bequeathed to us. Yet, as Lawrence Lessig put it, “We inherited an extraordinary estate. On our watch, we have let it fall to ruin.”

Republic, Lost

The truth is that South Carolina more closely resembles an oligarchy than a republic.

As far back as the Civil War, the Palmetto State’s ruling class loathed the idea of a black governor, so they divested the governorship of most executive functions. Who were the recipients of this power? They were, of course--the legislators.

“Are you suggesting that the legislature does the work of two branches of government?” you ask. Of course not! That would be hard work. Instead, the legislature appoints a confusing and sometimes redundant array of hybrid, unelected board and commissions. Some of these are entities unto themselves; others perform executive oversight of entire state agencies, such as the Department of Transportation.

And one of these picks our judges.

The Judicial Merit Selection Commission

You’d think the Governor would appoint our judges. She does not. Instead, the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which is itself comprised of a majority of legislators, screens candidates and submits a list of "approved" nominees to the joint House and Senate body for election.

By contrast, the President of the United States and many other state Governors appoint judges, who must then be confirmed by the respective Senate bodies. South Carolina is the only one out of fifty states with such an odd system.

As Rep. Kenny Bingham, a candidate running for Speaker of the House, put it to me: “We can’t give the Governor that much power.”

Thus is the mentality of many of our lawmakers. It’s their power, and no one else should have it. No matter that it’s a bastardization of the Republic that our founders gave us so many years ago.

Tracing the ties of power

Five of the ten members of this board are directly appointed by the Speaker of the House. The other five? Appointed by the Senate.

Now, imagine a scenario where the Chief Justice of the SC Supreme Court is up for re-election, and the Speaker of the House appoints House members to the Judicial Merit Selection Committee who are beholden to himself for their coveted House committee assignments, and also appoints his own brother. Let us further imagine that the Speaker is indicted for charges which could easily be appealed to the SC Supreme Court.

Do you think said Speaker will get a fair trial? Maybe a little too fair, if you get my drift?

Perhaps all 5 of Harrell’s appointees are good people. Corrupt systems often employ generally decent people. As Lessig writes in his book, “Republic, Lost:”

“[C]orruption does indeed wreck our democracy. Not a corruption caused by a gaggle of evil souls. On the contrary, a corruption practiced by decent people...people working extremely hard to do what they believe is right, yet...extraordinary bad gets done. This corruption has two elements...the first element is bad governance, which means simply that our government doesn’t track the expressed will of the people...on this account, [democracy] seems to a show or ruse; power rests elsewhere. The second element is lost trust: when democracy seems a charade, we lose faith in its process.”

Lost trust. Funny choice of words. (Look up “Operation Lost Trust” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Oh, and did I mention that many South Carolina lawmakers are also attorneys, who, in their own law practices, will stand before the very judges they elect? Is it not enough that the lawmakers write the law? Must they also choose the judges?

Can we trust such a system?

After Harrell

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Henry David Thoreau

Literally moments after Speaker Harrell’s indictment was announced, Representatives of ambition began scrambling to line up votes for themselves. Amidst the melee, a call to change House procedures went out. Rep. Tommy Stringer wrote:

“At a minimum, the new Speaker should lead the reformation of House Rules to limit the number of terms a member can serve as Speaker, to limit the number of terms a member may serve as a committee chairman, and to expand the number of standing committees so that the State may benefit from the talents of the broadest number of Representatives as possible. I will not vote for any member running for Speaker who does not, at a minimum, strongly support and act to achieve these reforms.”

A few days later, Interim Speaker (and Speaker candidate) Rep. Jay Lucas appointed a “Special House Rules & Procedures Review Ad Hoc Committee” presumably to draft and propose potential rule changes.

This sudden move to reform House procedure was described by Rep. Nathan Ballentine as “a signal of a new day in the House...a breath of fresh air.”

I, for one, agree there is a need for things like term limits on the Speaker. However, I cannot help but be skeptical, and wonder if this could prove a diversion from a much greater problem: judicial dependence.

To the current Speaker candidates, Reps. Jay Lucas, Kenny Bingham, and Jim Merrill, hear me:

If you wish to rise above the previous speaker, to restore faith and trust in the SC House, and do more than whitewash a corrupt system, you MUST amend the SC Constitution to achieve judicial independence, which means, at a minimum, completely abolishing the Judicial Merit Selection Committee, divesting yourself of the inordinate power which you should never have had over this process and allowing the Governor the full power to appoint Judges with the advice and consent of the Senate, as our founding fathers (who were all much smarter than any of us) intended.

Only then will we begin to strike the root of the greatest corruption of all.

Legislative priorities: my top 3 for 2015

The Republican Caucus will meet in Myrtle Beach on Saturday, August 16th for the annual caucus retreat. I was asked to submit in advance my ideas on what we should work on in the upcoming legislative session, and here is my response.

1. Roads - our roads are on everyone's minds. They were in my district, it came up a lot. I'd like to see us earmark 100% of the gas tax and related fees (a total of about $650 Million) to fund road and bridge repair, to allocate DOT funding out of the general fund, to abolish the SC Transportation Commission and move DOT under Executive control, and abolish the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. As far as I'm concerned, raising taxes or fees of any kind are off the table until we do these things because I am not confident any new funds would not be wasted in the same way that the old ones have been. There also seems to be a general public expectation that the gas tax pays for roads, but that isn't really true right now. A big part of it funds DOT operations. My positions in greater detail are outlined here.

2. Taxi Regulations - Uber came to town, and instead of celebrating hundreds of new jobs being created in SC's 4 large cities, the Taxi associations want the police to run them out of town. I'd like to repeal the regulations that give the state so much control over this industry and make SC a friendly place for new and innovative business models. It is not government's job to protect established industry players from competition. When the law becomes a tool to these ends, it's time to change the law.

3. Legit ethics reform - we need to repeal any law that sets politicians or candidates apart from everyone else. Dipping into campaign funds for personal use should be considered embezzlement, for instance, and should be treated as such. The law should also be enforced by an independent party, not the House Ethics Committee. We also need to get out of the business of electing judges (allow the voters of SC to pick them instead), and eliminate the FOIA exemption for legislators.

There's plenty more I could list, but I get the fact that we can't do it all, so these are my top 3 for 2015.

Issue Spotlight: Corruption

Everyone knows that government is corrupt, but you might be surprised to learn just how corrupt it is in South Carolina. There are systemic changes needed, but first, some background.

A Legislature-dominated government

As the saying goes, power corrupts. That’s why we have three branches of government. It’s like a three-legged stool: each leg helps keep the others on balance. Those branches are the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary.

Corruption in South Carolina

Corruption in South Carolina

Here in South Carolina, the legislature rides roughshod over everything, the Governor is little better than a figurehead, and the judiciary is beholden to the legislature.

This isn’t overheated political rhetoric. Here are some actual examples:

For this, we can thank South Carolina’s Jim Crow-era 1895 Constitution and over an hundred years of lawmakers who want the good-old-boy system to stay intact and keep “ragheads” out of power.

It doesn’t have to be like this. But, there’s more.

Unaccountable state boards and agencies

A maze of boards and commissions has been created over the years to perform functions that are sometimes legislative in nature and sometimes executive in nature. These boards, since they aren’t elected, aren’t directly accountable to the citizens of South Carolina. For instance:

  • The Superintendent of Education vs. the State Board of Education vs. the State Education Oversight Committee vs. the local School District vs. the County School Board (is it any wonder our schools are failing?)
  • The SC Department of Transportation (SCDOT) vs. the SC Transportation Commission vs. the SC Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB)
  • The Department of Administration vs. the Bond Review Authority

This complexity both wastes money and allows our elected officials to shirk responsibility and avoid accountability. For a legislatively-run state, it’s amazing how little power they sometimes seem to have!

Now and then, the cry goes up for “restructuring,” but the result often looks more like a massive game of musical chairs.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Oh, but there’s still more.

The Judicial system

Currently, our judges are elected by the legislature, many of whom are lawyers who practice before those very judges.

Is this a problem? You bet.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, under a grand jury investigation for serious campaign ethics violations, attempted to have Attorney General Wilson thrown off his case. The matter will be ultimately decided by the SC Supreme Court, whose Chief Justice Speaker Harrell actively campaigned for.


Fixing this will likely take a generation or two, but here is a good starting place.

  • Judges should either be elected (like Probate Judges) or appointed by the Governor with confirmation by the Senate (like the Federal government). I personally favor letting the voters choose - I trust the people of South Carolina much more than politicians to pick good judges. This is what Texas does, and it seems to work very well for them.
  • Consolidate redundant boards, commissions and agencies.
  • Eliminate hybrid boards that give undue legislative oversight to executive functions, such as the S.C. Transportation Commission.
  • Remove legislators’ FOIA exemption. Lawmakers should have to respond to FOIA requests just as state agencies do.
  • Establish term limits and eliminate pensions for state legislators. We should not be rewarding politicians who make a career out of spending your money.
  • Shorten the legislative session. I favor the Texas model (a six-month session every other year). It seems to work great for them!
  • Close the party primaries. Democrats should not have a say in who the Republican candidates are, and vice versa. This is like letting USC pick Clemson’s football coach! Why do we allow this? Crossover may be a factor in how some corrupt Republicans continue getting elected.

Am I really going to be any different?

It’s a fair question, and one I get a lot. You’ve heard it all before. How do you know I won’t turn out like everyone else does?

For one thing, a lot of candidates don't know what they believe going into office. I do, and have tried to be very open and detailed on all the major issues.

This is not about making money or about a career change for me personally. I have a great career as a computer programmer. Nor is it about belonging to an “elite” group. I hate pretentiousness. I’m not a party animal and you won’t find me hanging out in Columbia drinking with lobbyists.

So why would I run for office? Because I want South Carolina to be the freest and most prosperous state in the nation, and because I believe that I can make a difference, and because my conscience dictates that I try.

Statement on Judge Manning's Ruling on the Harrell Investigation


Yesterday I participated in a press conference calling on my opponent to take a stand regarding the current Speaker of the House who is under investigation for some very serious charges of corruption. A state judge recently decided that the Attorney General does not have the authority to prosecute Harrell (here's the scoop), or even to investigate using a State Grand Jury. A transcript of my comments is below. Folks, it’s a great day to be a legislator in South Carolina!

According to Judge Casey Manning, they now have bulletproof armor that protects them from criminal prosecution!

As unprecedented as it is, Manning’s decision is just a symptom of a larger problem: the Speaker of the House has too much power.

This power extends over all areas of our state government, including who gets to be a judge, thanks to South Carolina’s Jim Crow-era 1895 Constitution and over an hundred years of lawmakers who prefer to keep this good-old-boy system intact.

We've seen Speaker Harrell abuse his power in four ways:

  • We saw how the Speaker uses his power when he retaliated against then-Representative Nikki Haley by stripping her of committee assignments because she believed that lawmakers should vote on-the-record.
  • We saw how the Speaker uses his power when he made state history by passing budgets with unprecedented levels of spending in a down economy.
  • We saw how the Speaker used his “Drive for 75” to elect a veto-proof majority of House members who would be loyal to him and enable him to foil any line-item-veto Governor Haley makes at will.
  • Finally, we saw how the Speaker uses his power when he led the campaign to re-elect Jean Toal as the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court - the very court who will now rule on who may investigate the Speaker for corruption.

We’ve needed a new Speaker for a long time. At an October 2010 forum hosted by the Anderson TEA Party, Rep. Don Bowen (who I am running against today) was asked if he would vote for a change in House leadership. His response was, and I quote:

Let me tell you how it works down there. I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. The commitments for Speaker of the House were taken probably in March. Everybody in there committed to him... Ralph [Norman] was not even running when that took place, and at that time I committed to Bobby.

Why would Rep. Bowen commit to the Speaker of the House months before the election, long before any potential challengers would enter the race? Was it because he stood to gain something from this Speaker, like his appointment to the House Judiciary committee?

There is significant evidence that Speaker Harrell is guilty of corruption. This evidence has been reviewed by Attorney General Wilson, the Chief of SLED, and a judge, and all three agreed that it should be sent to a Grand Jury.

Make no mistake: Judge Manning’s decision on Monday to send the case to the House Ethics Committee is a decision to let Speaker Harrell pick his own jury.

It’s past time for new leadership in Columbia. I will vote for a new Speaker of the House, I will vote to change the way we elect judges in South Carolina, and I call on my opponent, Rep. Don Bowen, to call for Speaker Harrell’s resignation immediately and to take a public stand in support of Attorney General Wilson’s Grand Jury investigation.

Failure to disavow this corrupt Speaker will reveal where Rep. Don Bowen's true loyalties lie.

Jonathon Hill