By PHILLIP CEASE
Any day of the week, somebody’s buying them food
“Freshman 15” is a term used to describe the weight gained by freshmen during their first year at college. But it might apply just as well to freshman lawmakers.
Special interests of all types routinely provide legislators with breakfasts, lunches, and dinners almost every day of session. Technically this is public knowledge – these catered meals are posted on the State House website – but there must be very few people who know just how often lawmakers get free grub.
Take for instance May 4, 2016. From 8am to 10 a.m., legislators were treated to breakfast by the Piedmont Municipal Power Agency. From 12 to 2 p.m., lunch was provided by the South Carolina Tire Manufacturing Council. For supper, members could attend the reception hosted by the South Carolina Association of Justice – an association of trial lawyers and not (as its name might lead you to believe) an association of superheroes.
These meals are used by the host to meet with legislators, sometimes staff, to explain why their issues deserve legislators’ utmost attention. In other words, the meals are lobbying opportunities.
Host groups included local governments. The City of Columbia reception on May 18 was held at the taxpayer-funded Spirit Communications Park.
Even state agencies get in on the action. On January 27, the Department of Natural Resources held a reception at the State Fairgrounds. Not to be outdone, on March 2, the University of South Carolina held a reception at the USC Alumni Center.
How important is this never-ending parade of special interest-sponsored food for legislators? Every day the current options for free food are listed at the top of the House and Senate calendars. Even more surprising: each chamber has an “invitations committee” whose job is to accept invitations to these events.
Occasionally two different groups will hold an event at the same time. That happened on January 19, 2016. Both the Engineers, Architects and Contractors of South Carolina and Lexington County hosted receptions for legislators. The former displayed their spread at the swanky Palmetto Club, the latter at the Columbia Convention Center.
According to the calendar for February 26, 2016, from March 1 to the March 17, no fewer than 21 different groups fed legislators. That might not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that from March 1 to 17 there were only nine legislative days (Tuesday through Thursday).
While the practice of wining and dining lawmakers may not surprise you, the fact that legislators get paid a per diem for meals every day may. Each day a legislator conducts official legislative business, he gets $131 for subsistence, even if he lives less than two miles from the State House. No receipts are required for this money – meaning the legislator can eat breakfast for free, thanks to the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and still take the full subsistence amount.
The quickest way to a lawmaker’s heart, apparently, is . . . oh, never mind.
Phillip Cease is director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council