Local Government Lobbying Could Continue Despite New State Law

September 6, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Columbia Town HallA new state law prohibits local governments in South Carolina from using state funding to lobby, but it won’t necessarily run local government lobbyists out of the State House.

In fact, the new restriction definitely won’t drive lobbyists for cities and counties out of the Capitol – at least, not if a similar measure applying to state agencies and colleges is any indication.

That’s because in both cases, the laws restrict only the use of state general funds – not, when it comes to cities and counties, locally generated tax dollars; and not, with colleges, their tuition revenues.

More than 20 cities or counties, plus at least three public education entities, had registered lobbyists during this year’s legislative session, according to State Ethics Commission records.

A few of the entities, such as Richland County First Steps and the city of Sumter, did not spend any money lobbying this session, the records show.

But most of them did. The amounts (rounded to the nearest $100) varied from $2,000 to more than $25,000, totaling upward of $200,000.

Some of the biggest spenders were the:

  • Town of Lexington, $26,900;
  • City of Columbia, $25,300 (not including late filing fines, but more about that later);
  • City of Greenville, $24,700;
  • City of Walterboro, $21,200; and
  • City of Myrtle Beach, $20,000.

Lexington Town Administrator Britt Poole, listed in the records as the contact person for the town’s lobbying activities, did not return a message left for him Tuesday at Lexington Town Hall.

Richard Davis, whom The Nerve recently reported was the highest-paid lobbyist this session – bringing home about $673,000 – said he worked on a 1-cent sales tax for Lexington.

And why would the small town of Walterboro – population a touch under 5,400, according to the 2010 census – rank among the big dogs in lobbying spending by local governments?

Good luck trying to ask Jeffrey Lord, the contact person listed for Walterboro. A phone number in the records for Lord “has been disconnected, or is no longer in service.”

Columbia, meanwhile, is facing more problems than the new ban on state-funded local government lobbying.

Teresa (Florence) Wilson, Columbia’s State House lobbyist for several years, has failed to get some of her required paperwork in on time, resulting in fines over the past couple of years, Ethics Commission records show.

Lobbyists and their employers, or principals, must file annual registrations – as well as semiannual income and expenditure disclosures – with the Ethics Commission by certain dates.

Each late form incurs a $100 fine.

Wilson and the city brought home $200 in penalties for Columbia taxpayers in 2011 by failing to submit one of her disclosures, and one of the city’s, on time, according to the Ethics Commission records.

Cathy Hazelwood, attorney for the commission, says another $200 in fines is pending because Wilson’s and the city’s registrations for this year also were late.

Those documents, filed on July 6, busted the Jan. 5 deadline by six months, the commission’s online filing system shows.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Wilson initially said that was “absolutely not” the case.

“There were no ultimate penalties,” said Wilson, who, as one of three assistant city managers for Columbia, makes a salary of $117,500, according to an online salary database maintained by The Statenewspaper.

Wilson declined to disclose her salary in the initial phone interview and hung up when pressed about the fines.

Later, after The Nerve emailed her Ethics Commission records showing the 2011 fines paid, she called back and left a message. In it, she said the overdue filings resulted from a near-death accident involving the daughter of a city staff member who handles Columbia’s lobbyist filings.

“I did pay the (2011) late penalties,” Wilson said, adding that she paid the 2012 fines “out of pocket.”

The Nerve did not independently verify payment of the 2012 fines before this story was posted.

Wilson also said she has always tried to be “nothing but transparent” and “timely” and “a good steward of the city’s money.”

As to the origin of the new law prohibiting state-funded local government lobbying, Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, sponsored it as a proviso in the current fiscal year’s state budget.

Merrill did not return voice messages left Tuesday on his cell phone and at his legislative delegation office.

Provisos are numbered edicts written into the budget, and they expire after one year unless renewed.

Merrill’s proviso (89.129) says “all local government entities,” including “associations,” are prohibited from using money they receive from the state’s Local Government Fund “to compensate employees for lobbying activities.”

The measure appears to be a first, as it was not in the budget for at least the past five fiscal years.

The Local Government Fund is a huge pot of money the state distributes to cities and counties annually. This year the fund totals about $226.5 million, according to Office of State Budget records.

But while the proviso covers that part of local governments’ funding, it does not extend to property taxes and other revenues cities and counties generate locally.

That leaves room for local governments to circumvent the proviso, which, as The Nerve reported in this story, is what many state-supported colleges and universities have done with the proviso pertaining to them.

Beyond local governments, Merrill’s proviso affects two major advocacy organizations for them: the Municipal Association of South Carolina and the South Carolina Association of Counties.

Both organizations had eight registered lobbyists this legislative session, and both receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in yearly dues from their respective city and county members.

“We are working with an attorney to determine how to best advise our cities to comply” with the proviso, Municipal Association deputy director Reba Campbell, one of the group’s lobbyists, said in an email.

“We’re in our budget process now for 2013 and will make adjustments in our financials to ensure that no LGF (Local Government Fund) dollars are used to pay lobbyists,” Campbell added.

Robert Croom is general counsel for the Association of Counties and one of its lobbyists. Asked about his group’s lobbying activities, Croom said, “Our job function is more information providing back and forth.”

Ethics Commission records show that the Municipal Association spent about $134,000 on lobbying this session, and the Association of Counties spent $88,300.

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