By RON AIKEN
Lawmakers free to sponsor bills to help their businessess
Just as Spring is sure to arrive, so too are bills hitting chamber floors that patently serve the self-interests of the legislators who file them.
What kind of interests? Interests such as when your father and brother both are veterinarians who don’t like competition, as in the case of Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens.
In that situation, you file S.687 along with some help from Sens. Thomas McElveen (D-Sumter), Kevin Johnson (D-Clarendon), Greg Hembree (R-Horry), Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington), Kent Williams (D-Marion) and Paul Campbell (R-Berkeley).
Introduced last May, the bill puts restrictions on mobile veterinary clinics who serve the poor in rural areas and who can’t afford the fees of a professional vet visit. Among the proposed new requirements are that they would be prevented from operating within 1-2 miles of a vet’s office, provide contact information for the closest veterinarian’s emergency services and provide them that business’ paperwork to fill out.
The proposed legislation also imposes a significant burden of documentation (record every homeless pet treated, make those unable to afford vet services provide proof of their inability to pay) and record storage (keep all records for five years) among other onerous provisions intended to stifle competition, critics say.
“I’ve watched this bill for several legislative sessions now, and Senator Verdin keeps bringing it up with little bits added and taken out and it gets thrown back in the mix,” said Karen Martin, founder of Animal Allies, a low cost spay/neuter clinic in Spartanburg that claims it performed 11,657 surgeries in 2015.
“Ever since I founded Animal Allies back in 1998, vets have been fighting it, and it’s not a surprise that Senator Verdin’s leading that effort in the legislature because of his family. There’s no other reason.”
State ethics law 8-13-700(B) states that no public official may knowingly use his office to “make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his office … to influence a governmental decision in which he, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated has an economic interest.”
For as clear as that language is, however, it is completely subverted by law’s definition of “economic interest.” In section 8-13-100(11b), the definition allows officials to participate in crafting legislation and voting on bills in which they have an economic interest so long as that official or family member is “a member of a profession, occupation, or large class to no greater extent than the economic interest or potential benefit could reasonably be foreseen to accrue to all other members of the profession, occupation or large class.”
What that means is that there’s almost no way any legislator’s business or family’s business doesn’t fit into some wide definition of an industry (dry cleaning, nail salons, veterinarians, funeral home directors, etc., etc.).
In fact a benefit would have to almost accrue to you and you alone for it not to extend to at least some other small group of professions in the same class.
In short, it makes the intent of 8-13-700(b) meaningless.
“You would have to write legislation that benefitted just your business only, like Charlie’s body shop, for it to apply,” said John Crangle, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause SC.
Crangle said the definition was expanded as a way to prevent wide swaths of legislators from voting on industry-wide issues.
“(8-13-100(11b)) was put in because there was a feeling that the legislators sometimes had to vote on bigger issues that may have some impact on their personal financial situation, such as an insurance bill,” he said. “You have a high percentage of lawyers in the legislature who handle insurance claims or are insurance agents, so if you precluded them from voting on legislation that would have some impact on their economic interests, you’d take out too many people and there would be large groups of legislators abstaining all the time, or so the thinking went.”
That thinking allowed the introduction of an exemption that makes even the most blatant attempts to aid a particular legislator’s particular business permissible even when that business is as small statewide (less 500 registered members) and specific as a licensed funeral home.
Rep. J. Anne Parks, D-Greenwood, is a funeral director and mortician. So is Rep. John King, D-York (along with being a bail bondsman). The two have joined forces this session to introduce H.4845 , which would allow funeral home directors to hold hostage the body of a loved one from their grieving family if the bill for their services (basic service fees, transfer of remains to grave site, embalming, hearse, printing for memorial service, casket) is beyond their financial ability to pay (the National Funeral Directors Association’s most recent assessment of the current cost of a funeral with viewing and burial is $7,181; $8,508 with a vault).
It’s not a new idea from King, at least, as The Nerve has previously explored in depth when King first floated the bill by himself back in 2013.
Right now, such a concept remains illegal in South Carolina. It hasn’t been a popular stance when tried, such as in 2014 when a Kentucky funeral director with an unpaid bill withheld a deceased newborn for lack of payment from the parents until the sheriff’s department intervened thanks to a 911 call from the mother.
Both bills reflecta special interest’s perspective on a specific industry verses the best interests of consumers (a person’s right to choose where to have an animal treated and choose the lowest price and a business taking an extra-legal – not to mention distasteful – measure to collect a debt beyond the normal legal means available to them), both affect the poor disproportionally and both would put money in the pockets of the legislators who crafted them.
“It’s not a very satisfying situation,” Crangle said. “And unless you can change the language so that legislators can vote on wider issues while preventing them from introducing or sponsoring bills to benefit their family and interests, this is where you are.”
Reach Aiken at 803-254-4411 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. Sign up for email alerts to receive breaking news at the top right-hand side of the page.