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Support Emerges for Ban on PACs in Legislature

support is lining up behind a move to prohibit state lawmakers from operating fundraising entities called political action committees, or PACs.

Two state senators from opposite sides of the political spectrum – Republican Jake Knotts of Lexington and Democrat Vincent Sheheen of Kershaw – plan to unveil a proposed ban tomorrow at the State House in a 12 p.m. news conference.

The Knotts-Sheheen measure is a rule rather than a law and it would apply only to the Senate, none of whose members actually have a PAC.

Supporters of the proposal, however, hope that it will pressure the House and other state elected officials to follow suit. Several house members operate political action committees.

“We’re going to add a rule,” Knotts says. “We’re just not going to allow them [in the Senate].”

As of Friday, Knotts said 37 or 38 of the Senate’s 46 members had expressed support for the measure. “We’ve got more than enough to change it,” he said, adding that he plans to speak at the news briefing.

Knotts says Sheheen plans to attend the event as well. Efforts to reach Sheheen last week were unsuccessful.

PACs have long been major players in the national political arena, but have received relatively scant attention in South Carolina.

Supporters of a state-level ban on leadership PACs argue that the entities create a loophole in limits on monetary contributions to legislators and other state elected officials established under S.C. law.

The backers also contend that leadership PACs concentrate power in the hands of their operators, who can use them, directly or otherwise, to exert undue influence on fellow legislators and shake down special interests for donations.

“A leadership PAC misuses an official office in order to put pressure on contributors to give donations,” says John Crangle, state director of Common Cause, a nonprofit, nationwide organization promoting good-government reforms. “Or the legislators will do what they [leadership PACs] want voluntarily to get the money.”

Crangle says he is working with other organizations to try to build a coalition of support for a ban, including the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, the Columbia TEA Party, the state chapter of the NAACP and the South Carolina Progressive Network.

“We are considering that [proposed ban],” says Allen Olson, chairman of the Columbia TEA Party. “My personal opinion is I think we need to jump on this, regardless of who’s bringing it out.”

Asked what concerns him about leadership PACs, Olson says, “It’s the consolidation of power.”

As a grassroots, independent-minded group, the Columbia TEA Party’s position on the matter is up to its members, Olson says. He says he plans to present the issue to the group’s board tonight.

If the board agrees to proceed, Olson says, “Then we’ll bring it to our members and they’ll decide first if we’re going to pursue it, and then which course we’re going to take.”

In the House, meanwhile, not everyone is rushing to endorse a ban on legislative political action committees.

“The whole thing is disclosure,” says Rep. Ralph Norman, a Republican from York who has advocated roll call voting and other legislative reform initiatives. “PACs in and of themselves are not bad.”

As examples, Norman says the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and the Business and Industry Political Education Committee have great PACs.

Norman says he does not oppose PACs per se and would need to look at a proposed ban carefully before deciding where he stood on it. “Again, it’s just disclosing who gives to what.”

State law caps donations to legislators at $1,000 per contributor per election cycle. Primaries and runoffs are considered separate cycles. Donations to PACs are limited to $3,500 per contributor per year.

The law also requires legislators and political action committees to regularly detail their contributions and expenditures in publicly available reports to the State Ethics Commission.

To the opponents of PACs, the fact that the entities can contribute to legislators is what creates a loophole in the limits on donations to lawmakers.

But prohibiting such activities outright can be legally precarious, because a precedent has been established under federal case law that political spending is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

“Quite frankly the U.S. Supreme Court has settled that issue,” says Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.

That’s the main reason Cobb-Hunter says she can see both sides of the argument. But she says she does not have a strong feeling about a ban one way or the other. “I would have to read the legislation.”

Asked whether she has experienced anything inappropriate related to a PAC, such as pressure to donate to one, Cobb-Hunter says no. “I can’t say it doesn’t happen but I’m not aware of it.”

Crangle says legislators have virtually unlimited free speech opportunities. “So I wouldn’t find the argument that it [a ban on leadership PACs] infringes on First Amendment rights to be persuasive.”

 

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org

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