Public agencies in SC spend more than $1 million total on state lobbyists

September 4, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

For the first half of this year, North Myrtle Beach agreed to pay a total of $120,000 to a lobbying firm to “work with” the Legislature and Governor’s Office on the city’s behalf, including a push for a law allowing a local sales tax for infrastructure projects, according to a retainer agreement.

The city last year paid at least $110,000 to H. Wayne Beam, president of Beam & Associates of North Myrtle Beach, which also represents the Horry County Solid Waste Authority and Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority, State Ethics Commission records show.

A review by The Nerve of the Ethics Commission’s year-end report found that in 2018, local municipalities, school districts, fire and water/sewer districts, public colleges and at least one state agency paid lobbyists a total of more than $1 million to curry favor with lawmakers and other state officials.

In addition, another approximately $236,000 was paid collectively last year to lobbyists for several state-created entities, including the S.C. Ports Authority and South Carolina Research Authority.

State-owned utility Santee Cooper, for example, reported paying nearly $133,000 in total – the largest overall amount in The Nerve’s review – to four lobbyists in 2018 to meet with lawmakers and officials in several other state agencies, including the Governor’s Office, records show.

The Nerve last month revealed that although a 2003 executive order issued by then-Gov. Mark Sanford banned the governor’s Cabinet agencies from hiring outside contractors to lobby the Legislature, current Gov. Henry McMaster in December hired a large law and consulting firm under an “emergency procurement” contract to lobby the federal government at a monthly taxpayer cost of $15,000.

The reported lobbying costs in The Nerve’s latest review represent only part of the total spent by some public agencies to influence state officials. Clemson University, for example, reported a total of $90,740 in lobbying payments last year to three employees in the university’s Office of Governmental Affairs, Ethics Commission and university records show.

Yet one of those employees, Angela Leidinger, Clemson’s vice president for external affairs, made $248,018 annually as of June 30, while another lobbyist, Mark Cothran, the university’s associate vice president of governmental affairs, received an annual salary of the $121,112, according to the state salary database.

One of the registered lobbyists for the University of South Carolina is Derrick Meggie, whose annual university salary is $162,000 as the director of state government relations and an adjunct faculty member. In comparison, the university reported $127,333 in total payments last year to Meggie and five other lobbyists who work for private firms.

More than $500,000 was paid collectively in 2018 to lobbyists representing 12 public colleges or universities, Ethics Commission records show.

As The Nerve reported earlier this year, at least 14 former S.C. House members are registered state lobbyists, including Kenny Bingham, who works in the Columbia office of the Adams and Reese law and consulting firm, which McMaster hired as a federal lobbyist.

Other ex-lawmakers who are lobbyists include Dan Cooper, former chairman of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Cooper currently is Tri-County Technical College’s registered lobbyist and receives a $110,000 annual salary as the college’s chief of staff, state and college records show. He did not return a written message Tuesday from The Nerve seeking comment.

Public colleges and universities aren’t the only state agencies with lobbyists, Ethics Commission records show. The S.C. Administrative Law Court paid a collective $12,000 to two lobbyists last year, while the state Judicial Department and Lieutenant Governor’s Office each had at least one registered lobbyist, though no lobbying costs were listed.

A Judicial Department spokeswoman on Tuesday said she couldn’t immediately answer The Nerve’s questions about the agency’s lobbying activities.

The Nerve’s latest review of Ethics Commission records found that at least 10 cities or towns – Anderson, Charleston, Columbia, Folly Beach, Forest Acres, Greenville, Lexington, Moncks Corner, North Myrtle Beach and Sumter – and the Sumter City Police Department collectively spent nearly $358,000 last year on lobbyists.

Beaufort and Richland counties recorded a total of about $47,000 in lobbyist payments in 2018, while the Beaufort and Charleston county school districts collectively paid $35,684, according to records.

Spokespersons for the cities of Columba and Greenville didn’t respond to written messages Tuesday from The Nerve seeking comment. North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling provided The Nerve with a copy of the city’s retainer agreement for this year with the Beam & Associates lobbying firm.

Under the contract, the city agreed to pay the firm $20,000 in six monthly installments from February to July – corresponding with the state legislative session – to lobby the Legislature and Governor’ Office to “secure appropriations to be utilized” for:

  • The “ongoing Ocean Outfalls Project,” which involves extending large stormwater drainage pipes into the ocean and removing existing drainage pipes from the beach;
  • The “ongoing Myrtle Beach Shore Protection Project”; and
  • “(A)ny other infrastructure needs identified by the City.”

“Additionally,” Beam says in the agreement, “we will work for enactment of legislation enabling municipalities to impose, by referendum, a 1% sales tax to be dedicated to infrastructure improvements within the City.”

Fees paid to the firm would cover “lobbying, monitoring, and consulting services on the issues referenced above,” according to the agreement, which requires Beam to provide “updates to the City as determined by the City Manager.”

“I think we’ve represented them well, and we’ve done it for several years, and they seem to be very satisfied with what we produced,” Beam said when contacted Wednesday, though he declined further comment.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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