MY LAST NERVE: Beware Government-Funded Studies

June 19, 2015

Inside Insight

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

paperwork

READ THE FINE PRINT AND THEN ASK: WHO PAID FOR IT?

On Tuesday during debate on H. 4230 – the Supplemental Appropriations bill – Rep. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville) proposed an amendment that would provide a pay increase to officials in all three branches of government. Before speaking on the amendment, he told the body he would move to table it as soon as he concluded his remarks, but that he wanted lawmakers to be prepared to debate and vote on such a measure next year.

Rep. Bannister referenced a 2013 study by the Hay Group which found that South Carolina legislators’ annual salaries were “significantly below” the Southern regional and national averages. The amendment, as he explained it, would be a “substantial pay increase for legislators” as well as the state’s judges and constitutional officers. He advised members to study the report and his amendment by the time the matter comes up in January. Bannister then asked the House to table his amendment, which members did on a voice vote.

The Nerve reported in 2014 that the Hay Group study referenced by Bannister had been quietly commissioned by the legislature in 2012 at a cost of $60,363. The study’s claim that that legislators’ salaries were significantly below the Southern regional and national averages, moreover, did not include the yearly $12,000 in-district payments; that consideration alone would have altered the claim considerably. Combined with the base salary of $10,400, most South Carolina lawmakers earn at least $22,400 yearly. This, The Nerve found, is more than $3,000 above than the Southern regional average salary of $21,109 cited in the study.

The lesson is apparent. Any time lawmakers pay for a study that says lawmakers should be paid more, be wary.

Two other studies took center stage this year, shaping the road funding debate in the State House. The studies, one produced by CDM Smith in 2014 and the other by the Transportation Infrastructure Task Force (TITF) in 2012, were often referenced during floor debate on multiple bills to raise taxes supposedly to “fund roads.” The CDM Smith study projected that the state would have more than $70 billion in additional transportation needs to 2040. Lawmakers pounced on that number as a reason to raise taxes.

But CDM Smith, as The Nerve discovered, had received more than $13 million in state payments since fiscal year 2012. A review of the report by the Coastal Conservation League revealed that a majority of the needs were new projects as well as mass transit, and not simply repair and maintenance.

The TITF study, according to the Department of Transportation’s website, was sanctioned and approved by the SCDOT Commission.

“Approximately 30 to 40 percent of the revenue derived from South Carolina’s user fee is from out-of-state users,” the TITF study alleged, allowing lawmakers to spin a proposal to raise the state’s gas tax by 10 to 12 cents as an equitable way to fund roads. The report provides no citation or substantiation for this assertion. Its authors merely assert the 30 to 40 number and hope readers accept it.

The point is this: when lawmakers want to get something done that will likely draw criticism from the majority of their constituents – for instance, a pay raise or a massive tax hike – they often feel it will be less politically painful to put the blame on a “study” or “report” that, often enough, they themselves commissioned.

An easy way to distinguish legitimate studies from bogus ones? Find out who paid for them.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.