Proviso Aims To Eliminate State-Funded Lobbying

April 5, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveSouth Carolina taxpayers would save $1 million under a state budget proviso the S.C. House has adopted that aims to eliminate publicly funded lobbying by state agencies.

The proviso (90.20) is a budget-cutting measure that hits state entities that spend public money on lobbying where it counts – in their funding.

“In order to eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying, the Office of State Budget is directed to permanently reduce the below allocations/authorization per said agency,” the proviso says.

It then lists a bevy of state-supported colleges and universities and state agencies. Beside each one is a dollar figure.

The way it would work is: If the proviso makes it into the final budget for 2011-12, the Office of State Budget would reduce state funding to the entities named in the proviso by the amounts the proviso lists.

Rounding the figures, the schools include:

  • the Medical University of South Carolina ($118,900);
  • Francis Marion University ($94,000);
  • College of Charleston ($70,800);
  • University of South Carolina ($53,400);
  • Clemson University ($45,500);
  • Coastal Carolina University ($20,200);
  • South Carolina State University ($20,000);
  • The Citadel ($16,900); and
  • Winthrop University ($9,300).

The proviso also would nix nearly $125,000 in lobbying funding for the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education as well as about $98,500 for four tech schools, most of that money split between Greenville Technical and Tri-County Technical colleges.The agencies included in the proviso are, again in rounded numbers, the:

  • State Ports Authority ($134,400);
  • Judicial Department ($59,200);
  • Department of Health and Environmental Control ($37,700);
  • Public Service Commission ($34,700);
  • Administrative Law Court ($22,000);
  • Prosecution Coordination Commission ($19,300); and
  • the Department of Natural Resources ($17,200)

Altogether, the reductions would slash a little more than $1 million from next year’s state budget.Yes, that would be a budget cut after a spending plan is finalized.

Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, sponsored the proviso as a budget amendment. Efforts to reach Bedingfield by phone and email on Friday and Monday were unsuccessful.

The House adopted Bedingfield’s proviso on March 15. The vote was fairly close: 61-54.

That same week, the House, which originates the budget each year, passed its version of a 2011-12 spending plan and sent it to the Senate. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

It is often difficult to divine what the Senate might do on a particular issue. But, based on a bill filed in the previous legislative session, one can infer that some level of support for the proviso exists in the Senate.

In January 2009, Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Kershaw sponsored legislation to make it illegal for state entities “to expend public funds in order to employ or contract with a lobbyist.”

The bill, S. 335, hardly moved, only getting referred to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee and not until one year later. But it did pick up two co-sponsors along the way: Sens. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, and Mike Rose, R-Dorchester.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston and president pro tempore of the Senate, wielded the most individual control over the fate of bill in that chamber.

Bryant cites an example from the 2010 legislative session of why he thinks it should be illegal to use state resources to lobby.

Last year, Bryant says, he and some other senators were pushing a bill to bring transparency to higher education spending by requiring state-supported colleges and universities to post their check registers online.

At the same time, some of those institutions had retained lobbyists who “were doing all they could to kill that legislation,” Bryant says.

The bill did not pass, but it is close to clearing the Legislature this session. Bryant says the schools are being more cooperative on it this time. “The taxpayer does not need to be supporting efforts to pass or defeat legislation,” the senator says.

While Bedingfield’s proviso is clearly intended to eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying – it says precisely that, and seeks to “permanently” cut money for it – the measure might not completely eradicate lobbying on state taxpayers’ dime.

That’s because, unlike the Sheheen bill, it would not be against the law for state entities to spend money on lobbying under the proviso. Still, if it passes and a school or agency covered by it did so anyway, arguably that would be a clear violation of legislative intent.

In addition, at least one entity is not included in the proviso – the S.C. Research Authority. Chartered through legislation in 1983, the SCRA is a state-created and state-controlled technology and real estate company.

The Research Authority plays a huge role in South Carolina’s economy, especially knowledge-based activities such as research in health care and renewable energy, and employs lobbyists to help achieve its ends.

The SCRA has four registered lobbyists for the current legislative session, all of them from the Columbia law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough: Dwight Drake, Edward Poliakoff, Jennifer Robinson and Kathy Shannon, according to State Ethics Commission records.

Although the proviso omits the Research Authority, and might leave out other state entities that lobby, it nonetheless would largely stamp out taxpayer-funded lobbying in South Carolina when coupled with a gubernatorial executive order that is in effect.

The order prohibits agencies of the governor’s cabinet from paying independent contractors to lobby the General Assembly. And it covers some of the largest departments, including Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Transportation.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford signed the order in February 2003 at the beginning of his administration. It continues to apply under Gov. Nikki Haley, according to Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey.

The order says in part, “Whereas, some of South Carolina’s state agencies have been known to spend state funds hiring independent contractors to lobby the General Assembly creating an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and the State’s budget, and producing an unacceptable cycle that fuels the growth of state government.”

When it comes to putting the kibosh on taxpayer-funded lobbying in the Palmetto State, the Governor’s Office and the House are on board. Will the Senate join them?

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