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Legislature Again Rejects Law to Ban Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying

The S.C. General Assembly once again is tinkering with half-measures to address publicly funded lobbying, rather than driving a stake through the heart of a practice many taxpayers across the political spectrum find offensive.

In this year’s legislative session, a few advocates of abolishing the activity, dispersed among many guardians of the status quo in the Legislature, sponsored bills to make lobbying on the state dime illegal.

But the bills – among them H. 3175 by Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, and S. 259 by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw – were quietly strangled in committee.

In place of a full-on ban, a few legislators got provisos, or edicts, written into state budget blueprints for the 2012-13 fiscal year that begins July 1.

But the budget provisos, while hammering a few dents into taxpayer-funded lobbying, would not flat-out quash it.

Indeed, South Carolinians have seen this movie before, and they know how it ends.

In the budget for the current fiscal year, Proviso 90.20 bans state entities from using general state appropriations to pay lobbyists.

The proviso also requires 21 state agencies, mostly colleges and universities, to transfer a combined $604,000 of their funding this fiscal year back to the state treasury.

Theoretically then, the proviso saves state taxpayers $604,000.

That amount is an estimate of what the 21 entities would spend on lobbying this budget year, according to Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville and sponsor of the proviso.

It is a stick designed, the measure says, “to eliminate taxpayer funded lobbying.”

The proviso expires after one year unless it’s renewed, but it has the force of law.

However, as The Nerve reported in this March 8 dispatch, 16 of the 21 state entities named in the proviso collectively had spent at least $320,000 on lobbying at that point in the current budget cycle.

“Well, it’s an obvious attempt to get around the intent of the General Assembly using funding that the General Assembly doesn’t touch every year,” Bedingfield told The Nerve on Tuesday.

Presumably, the 16 agencies circumvented the law by tapping their “other” funds to pay for lobbying. Other funds are mostly fees and fines, including tuition.

And – oh yeah – the proviso does not address other funds.

A conference committee of three House members and three senators is working this week on a compromise budget for 2012-13, based on different versions each chamber passed.

As the six legislators haggle over a new budget, it’s déjà vu all over again when it comes to the other funds loophole allowing taxpayer-funded lobbying – with a couple of twists.

In its budget plan, the House renewed Bedingfield’s proviso with one tweak, striking the S.C. Prosecution Coordination Commission from the measure.

That leaves a theoretical savings of $585,000 in taxpayer-funded lobbying under the House budget for next fiscal year.

The Senate, by contrast, struck all 21 of the entities and the original $604,000, leaving only the language banning the use of general state funds for lobbying.

Bedingfield says he hopes the Senate members of the budget conference committee recognize the importance of the proviso and go with the House version.

Beyond that, he says a year-to-year effort isn’t getting it done. “It needs to be addressed statutorily,” Bedingfield says, adding that he is moving toward next year filing his own bill in that regard.

The lawmaker says legislators who support the idea need to get behind one proposal in order to improve their chances of banning lobbying with state funds.

Meanwhile, one of the new wrinkles in the budget plans would advance the effort to stamp out publicly funded lobbying.

Proviso 89.129 would prohibit local government entities from using money they get from the state’s local government fund to compensate lobbyists. Both the House and Senate approved the proviso.

It would apply to counties, municipalities and associations. But like Bedingfield’s state entities proviso, the one applying to local governments would not cover all of their funding sources, such as property taxes.

That likewise leaves room to bypass the measure.

Most if not all 46 counties in the state pay membership dues to the South Carolina Association of Counties. The association has six registered State House lobbyists, according to S.C. Ethics Commission records.

The six include Robert Croom, the group’s deputy general counsel.

Croom did not answer two calls to his office Tuesday.

Michael Cone, the Association of Counties’ director, was in a meeting at 11 a.m. and at lunch at 2 p.m. Tuesday, according to a woman who answered phone calls at those times.

Most if not all cities and towns in the state pay membership dues to the Municipal Association of South Carolina, which employs eight registered State House lobbyists.

Miriam Hair, the Municipal Association’s director, also did not answer two calls to her office yesterday.

Bedingfield says he suspects that cities and counties would get around the proviso pertaining to them in a manner similar to how the 16 state entities are skirting his proviso.

One final note: The House also approved a new budget proviso forbidding the governor’s office from using general state dollars for lobbying.

But the Senate deleted that proviso, 72.21, from its budget plan. So the conference committee will have to reach an agreement on that one, too.

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

Budget General Assembly Higher Education State Agencies

Sen. Vincent Sheheen Michael Cone South Carolina Association of Counties Municipal Association of South Carolina Rep. Jim Merrill Rep. Eric Bedingfield Robert Croom Miriam Hair