Public agencies in SC spending thousands to influence lawmakers, other state officials

February 14, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Last year, local municipalities, fire and other special purpose districts, public colleges and at least three state agencies collectively spent more than $1.4 million on lobbying the S.C. legislative and executive branches, State Ethics Commission records show.

The total grows to at least $2.9 million if  other state-created or state-owned agencies, organizations that cater to local governments or public employee groups, and private foundations supporting state schools are included, a review by The Nerve found.

The Nerve last year reported at least 14 former S.C. House members were registered state lobbyists, and also revealed that although then-Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 banned the governor’s Cabinet agencies from hiring outside contractors to lobby the Legislature, current Gov. Henry McMaster hired a large law and consulting firm under an “emergency procurement” contract to lobby the federal government.

Three S.C. agencies in 2019 reported state lobbying expenses: the Department of Natural Resources ($2,091), Patriots Point Development Authority ($6,000), and the John de la Howe School for Agriculture ($43,329), a residential high school in McCormick. The school did not respond to a written request Wednesday for comment.

Thirteen public colleges reported a total of $639,592 in state lobbyist payments and related expenses last year, according to the State Ethics Commission’s year-end report:

  • The Citadel: $61,306;
  • Clemson University: $141,451;
  • Coastal Carolina University: $30,366;
  • College of Charleston: $31,196;
  • Florence-Darlington Technical College: $12,209;
  • Francis Marion University: $25,940;
  • Horry-Georgetown Technical College: $39,000;
  • Lander University: $25,000;
  • Medical University of South Carolina: $146,858;
  • South Carolina State University: $6,000
  • Tri-County Technical College: $372;
  • University of South Carolina: $101,210;
  • Winthrop University: $18,680.

Although Pendleton-based Tri-County Technical reported just $372 in total lobbying costs, its registered lobbyist is Dan Cooper, who is the college’s chief of staff and former chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee. He receives an annual salary of $110,000 from the college, according to the state salary database.

The Nerve in 2018 revealed, among other things, that the wife of state Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, the immediate past Ways and Means chairman, worked for the Tri-County Technical College Foundation, the college’s private fundraising arm; and that the college received a 76% hike in state appropriations from when White took over as the committee chairman to fiscal year 2018.

And there are other legislative family connections to state colleges, as The Nerve has previously reported.

For example, the daughter of longtime Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who is the Senate Finance Committee chairman, is a member of the Francis Marion University Board of Trustees. At MUSC, the father of state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who is the current Ways and Means chairman, and the brother of Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, sit on the school’s Board of Trustees.

The Nerve this week sent written messages to MUSC, Francis Marion, Clemson and USC seeking comment on their state lobbying activity. MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said Thursday she couldn’t provide immediate answers to The Nerve’s questions; Clemson and USC spokesmen didn’t respond for comment.

In an email response Thursday, Francis Marion spokesman Matt McColl said legislation affecting the university, “whose student body is comprised almost entirely of South Carolinians,” requires “an ongoing connection with, and flow of information to, legislators, legislative staffs, and other state agencies.”

The state-created Ports Authority and South Carolina Research Authority reported a total of $26,433 and $68,174, respectively, in state lobbying costs last year, while state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which could be sold or privately managed under proposals before the Legislature, listed $87,440 in total costs, records show. Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said Thursday she couldn’t immediately provide answers to The Nerve’s questions.

The Nerve’s review also found that 28 municipalities, counties, a county school district and the state public charter school district, along with fire, water and other special purpose districts, collectively spent $773,343 on state lobbying in 2019.

Included in the group were Beaufort and Richland counties; and the cities or towns of Anderson, Charleston, Clinton, Columbia, Folly Beach, Forest Acres, Greenville, James Island, Lexington, Moncks Corner, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Sumter, records show.

The single-biggest spender among that group was the city of North Myrtle Beach, which recorded total lobbying costs of $120,000. The Nerve reported last year the city agreed to pay $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 nonprofit Municipal Association of South Carolina reported the largest total amount of lobbyist payments and expenses last year – $633,342 – among all public agencies and related organizations in The Nerve’s review, followed by the South Carolina Association of Counties at $166,005 in total costs.

On its website, the Municipal Association says it “represents and serves the state’s 271 incorporated municipalities.” The organization’s 2017 federal tax return listed $10.6 million in revenues that year.

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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