Topics/Categories

Get The Nerve in your in-box every weekday morning!

Senate Panel Waters Down Lobbying Ban

The S.C. Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Republican Sen. Hugh Leatherman of Florence and responsible for writing the Senate’s version of the annual state budget, has watered down a House-passed proviso designed to eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying.

The House included the proviso in its proposed spending plan for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which begins July 1. (Read The Nerve’s first, exclusive report on the proviso here.)

The Senate Finance Committee, in sending its suggested version of the budget to the full Senate last week, softened up the proviso, taking a proverbial one step forward but two steps backward on it.

The committee’s most significant change to the proviso would lower by $400,000 the savings taxpayers could reap if the measure passes.

Just six days before the Finance panel reported out its budget, meanwhile, a fourth bill was introduced in the General Assembly to make publicly funded lobbying by state entities illegal.

Two of the bills are in the House; the other two in the Senate, and both Republicans and Democrats are sponsoring the measures.

A bevy of state agencies and state-supported colleges and universities in South Carolina have lobbyists, who, along with their employers – so-called “principals” – must register annually with the State Ethics Commission. See the commission’s list of registered lobbyists and principals here.

The idea of government entities paying people to lobby for more funding and so forth riles taxpayer watchdogs. Many states have banned or restricted the practice, as this table compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows.

Here in the Palmetto State, agencies of the governor’s cabinet are prohibited from lobbying under an executive order former Gov. Mark Sanford issued at the beginning of his administration in 2003.

The order remains in effect, according to the Governor’s Office. However, it does not apply to higher education institutions or several state agencies, such as the Ports Authority and the Department of Natural Resources.

The House budget proviso (90.20) would cover those agencies and others as well as publicly supported colleges and universities, greatly expanding the limitation on taxpayer-funded lobbying at the state level in South Carolina.

The House version of the proviso would slash lobbying funding from 22 schools and agencies in varying amounts, saving taxpayers a little more than $1 million combined in next fiscal year alone. The amounts range from as much as approximately $134,400 from the State Ports Authority to as little as about $1,200 from Horry-Georgetown Technical College.

The funding cuts would be made after the 2011-12 budget is finalized, with the Office of State Budget reducing appropriations to the agencies and schools by the respective amounts.

“In order to eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying,” the proviso says, instructing the budget office to “permanently reduce” the allocations.

Budget provisos expire after one year unless renewed, but the “permanently reduce” directive suggests that this one could yield even more savings than the $1 million it lists.

After the House, which originates the budget, sent it to the Senate, that chamber’s Leatherman-led Finance Committee buttressed the proviso on a couple of scores but weakened it even more substantially.

On the upside, the committee added language forbidding state agencies and institutions “from using general fund appropriations to compensate employees who engage in lobbying on behalf of” the entities.

To police that restriction, the panel put in a provision directing the Ethics Commission to “require state agencies and institutions that report lobbying activities to the commission to certify that the lobbying activities were not funded by general fund appropriations.”

How would the commission carry out that mandate?

“With a proviso I think we would accept a letter with certification language,” commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood said in an email. “If it were done through legislation we might have language in the electronic system as certification, but I’m not going seek that type of change to the system on something in a budget proviso.”

The Finance Committee also added verbiage forbidding state entities from hiring lobbyists on a contractual basis.

Nevertheless, the panel’s changes to the proviso arguably make it worse, not better.

For one thing, while the committee added Lander University to the list and a $25,000 lobbing funding cut to that school, the panel deleted the Ports Authority and the Public Service Commission from the group and downsized many of the funding cuts, reducing the overall savings to about $600,000.

That’s $400,000 less than the House proposed.

Indeed, the $134,400 cut to the Ports Authority by the House is the single largest reduction in taxpayer-funded lobbying in either chamber’s version of the proviso.

Moreover, the Senate Finance Committee’s restriction on using general funds for lobbying does not include two sources of money that often exceed what agencies receive in general funds – federal and “other” funds.

The use of federal funds typically is restricted; but other funds, not so much.

Thirdly, lobbyists for agencies and colleges and universities in many cases are employees of the entities rather than contract workers.

The four bills pending in the Legislature that would make state-level taxpayer-funded lobbying illegal do not contain these kinds of loopholes and would settle the matter for good.

Eight days after The Nerve’s first story about the House proviso was posted, Democratic Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk of Kershaw introduced the fourth bill, H. 4081.

Republican Rep. Jim Merrill of Berkeley is lead sponsor of the other House bill, H. 3175. Six of Merrill’s GOP colleagues in the House have signed onto his proposal.

It, and the two Senate bills, were all introduced on the same day at the beginning of the legislative session in January.

The two Senate bills are: S. 259, sponsored by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw; and S. 82, sponsored by Sen. Dick Elliott, D-Horry.

Sheheen’s bill has bipartisan support.

The four proposals are identical, except that the Merrill bill does not include language exempting “appearances by the administrative head of a state agency, instrumentality, or department before a public body by specific request.”

That exemption means that it would not be illegal for directors of agencies and the like to appear before a legislative committee, for example, when asked to do so.

Each of the four bills was referred to their chambers’ respective Judiciary committees, and they have not moved since being introduced.

However, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison, R-Richland and a co-sponsor of the Merrill bill, says he “absolutely” is committed to getting a law banning taxpayer-funded lobbying passed – if not this year then next year.

“Everybody I talk to is in agreement that we would prefer not to have government liaisons lobbying us [lawmakers] for more funding,” Harrison says.

But he says he is unsure whether the General Assembly has enough time this session to act on the matter because legislators still must address several key issues, including redistricting, before the session ends in June.

Harrison says he plans to talk it over with Senate Judiciary Chairman Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. If they agree that there’s not enough room left on the calendar this year, then Harrison says he will push to get it done in the 2012 session.

Regarding the House-originated proviso, he says, “I don’t think that was the best way to resolve it, but at least it was an effort to try to deal with it in the budget.”

Along those lines, Harrison notes that it is not possible to pass permanent law through a proviso. And he says that whatever passes must include a distinction between legitimate public business and entities advocating for their own self-interests.

“But,” Harrison says, “the concept of prohibiting a government-paid lobbyist is a good concept.”

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

Uncategorized