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Silver Haired Legislature Gets Tax Dollars to Powwow at State House

Since 2007, a total of $85,500 in state tax dollars has been allocated to a private, nonprofit group to hold annual meetings at the State House in Columbia to craft its legislative agenda for the upcoming year.

But the head of the “South Carolina Silver Haired Legislature” says her organization doesn’t lobby state lawmakers, nor does she consider it a special-interest group.

“We are 20 percent of the voting population of the state of South Carolina,” Marjorie Johnson, who leads the 186-member organization, told The Nerve on Friday. “We are not a special-interest group. We are the voting population. We are a growing group.”

The Silver Haired Legislature was created by the S.C. General Assembly in 1999 to “identify issues, concerns, and possible solutions for problems affecting the aging population in South Carolina,” according to its enabling legislation. Members of the group must be at least 60 years old.

Good intentions notwithstanding, though, it might be the only group of its kind in South Carolina to receive state tax dollars specifically to convene in the State House.

And it's no secret to state lawmakers that seniors are a powerful and consistent voting bloc. There are approximately 900,000 seniors in South Carolina, according to the fiscal 2011 accountability report of the S.C. Lieutenant Governor's Office, which noted that the Palmetto State has one of the highest rates of senior population growth in the country.

State budget records show that the Silver Haired Legislature was not appropriated any state funding until fiscal 2008 when lawmakers allocated $15,000 – over then-Gov. Mark Sanford’s objections.

“While we admire the mission of the Silver Haired Legislature, they often lobby the Legislature for programs that it believes benefit our state’s senior population,” Sanford wrote in vetoing the $15,000.

“I issued an executive order during my first year as governor prohibiting cabinet agencies from hiring lobbyists,” Sanford continued, “because we do not believe that taxpayer funds should be used to advocate for more public funds, and for that reason I am vetoing this line.”

Gov. Nikki Haley did not veto separate $13,500 appropriations for the group this fiscal year, which started July 1, and last fiscal year, records show.

State money for the organization flows through the Office on Aging in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. A state budget proviso that was renewed this fiscal year bans state agencies from using general funds to lobby lawmakers, though as The Nerve reported in March and again last week, many agencies have used a loophole in the proviso to get around it.

In stressing that her organization does not lobby, Johnson said: “We do not go in numbers to try to convince single members of the Legislature to come over to our points. We instead all have elected representatives. We all have our one person we try to convince what we would like to see done.”

The Silver Haired Legislature is not registered as a lobbyist’s principal with the State Ethics Commission. It is registered in good standing with the S.C. Secretary of State’s Office as a 501(c)(4) organization, agency spokeswoman Renee Daggerhart told The Nerve last week in a written response.

The Internal Revenue Service defines such an organization as one that is “operated to promote social welfare … to further the common good and welfare of the people of the community.”

The Nerve last week left written and phone messages with Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell seeking comment about the Silver Haired Legislature, but he didn’t respond, as has been his practice with The Nerve. His chief of staff and spokeswoman also didn’t reply to a written message.

McConnell’s predecessor, Ken Ard, who resigned in March on the same day he pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations, initially requested $13,500 for the Silver Haired Legislature for this fiscal year as part of the Office on Aging’s operating budget, records show.

Johnson said the money is used to reimburse members for mileage for round trips to Columbia and for a portion of hotel costs for those members who travel long distances; to provide meals for members while in Columbia; and to pay for certain other costs, such as copying fees.

There are no paid employees in the organization, according to Johnson.

“We don’t have offices – $13,500 is our only funding,” she said. “It’s more of a stipend than actual funding.”

Asked why the organization began receiving state funding in fiscal 2008, Johnson, who has been with group for nine years, said it was “becoming such a hardship to get experienced South Carolinians to give input to the Legislature.”

The group met Thursday in the Blatt Building on the State House grounds, where the offices of S.C. House members are located; and plans to meet Sept. 11-13 in the House chamber, Johnson said. About 100 members participated in last week’s meeting; more are expected to attend September’s event, she said.

The purpose of last week’s one-day meeting was to begin to prioritize legislative proposals from the organization’s 10 caucuses, which represent particular areas of the state, Johnson said. A final list will be prepared during the three-day session in September, she said.

Johnson’s title with the Silver Haired Legislature is “speaker,” similar to the S.C. House speaker. She said she served as the interim speaker last year and was confirmed last week to serve as speaker until May.

Johnson said a continuing priority for her organization is to reduce a backlog of seniors waiting to receive home- or community-based meals and other services. She said, for example, that it is far cheaper to fund those programs than to pay for similar services in nursing homes with Medicaid dollars.

The General Assembly appropriated $2 million this fiscal year for home- and community-based services through the Office on Aging, though McConnell had publicly pushed for $5 million.

Another ongoing issue is a lack of transportation for needy seniors, Johnson said.

“If seniors cannot get to where they have to go, they will just disintegrate,” she said. “They’ve got to have some ability to interact with other human beings.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

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