Despite increasing budget shortfalls, South Carolina public universities and state agencies continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying.
The state's public schools and agencies pay out big bucks each year to lobbyists to influence legislators in a bid to get more money and pass laws that are favorable to their respective organizations
Clemson, The Citadel, MUSC and Francis Marion have spent more than $200,000 last year alone on payments to outside lobbying costs, according to State Ethics Commission principal disclosure reports. That doesn’t include salaries paid to lobbyists hired by the schools.
Public universities aren’t the only ones trying to curry favor on the taxpayers’ dime: The Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Administrate Law Judge Division and Patriots Point Development Authority paid nearly $70,000 collectively on outside lobbying in 2009.
Other state-owned entities that have turned to lobbyists this year include the Ports Authority ($61,360), Santee Cooper ($27,481) and the S.C. Research Authority ($17,438). Again, that doesn’t include the salaries of lobbyists on company payrolls.
Critics assert that lobbyists are not necessary. University presidents, state agency heads and other public entities should have many qualified employees to answer legislators’ questions and present information to the General Assembly.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying presents a conflict of interest and wastes tax dollars. Taxpayers, whether they realize it, might be paying a lobbyist to advocate for something they oppose, they add.
The use of state dollars to pay lobbyists is particularly galling given the state’s dire financial condition. Schools, colleges, prisons and other state agencies lost 5 percent of their budgets last month as the state Budget and Control Board (BCB) enacted a new round of across-the-board cuts. That came on the heels of a 4 percent cut last September.
Officials with the BCB aren’t optimistic about the future, either, as South Carolina continues to slog through a recession that has led to more than $1.6 billion in budget cuts in the past 18 months and saddled many agencies with reductions of 20 percent or more.
The General Assembly cut funding to state colleges by 25 percent this year, the largest cut of any state college system in the nation. That raises questions about why some schools are not only shelling out sizeable sums for lobbying activities, but also putting lobbyists on their payrolls.
Consider what lobbyists for the state’s largest schools are being paid:
- The Medical University of South Carolina: Bo Faulkner, $221,521; Mark Sweatman, $100,000;
- The College of Charleston: Bobby Marlowe, $85,000; Shirley Hinson, $81,600;
- University of South Carolina: Shirley Mills, $114,433; Casey Martin, $104,030, John Perry, $97,389;
- Clemson University: Angela Leidinger, $181,800; Katherine Coleman, $91,985.
Lobbying costs are included in State Ethics Commission reports but salaries paid to employees hired to lobby are not.
When lobbyists’ salaries and outside lobbyists’ costs were added up, more than $1.5 million in state money was spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying through the first half of 2009. And that doesn’t include millions of dollars more in money that’s spent as a result of all that lobbying.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying is problematic because it essentially occurs behind closed doors, rather than out in the open as happens when agencies submit budgets to lawmakers. It also adds an extra and unnecessary layer of government process that conflicts with good, open-government policies.
The practice doesn’t look likely to end any time soon, either.
While Gov. Mark Sanford signed an executive order in 2003 that banned his Cabinet agencies from contracting with lobbyists, efforts in the General Assembly to prohibit the use of public funds to lobby the Legislature have never made it out of committee.
Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or email@example.com.