S.C. universities paying lobbyists as student tuition, school debt loads rise

October 17, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Since 2015, state colleges and universities have paid a total of more than $1.5 million to lobbyists – mainly to influence S.C. lawmakers – while overall student tuition and school debt loads have steadily increased, a review by The Nerve found.

Lobbying reports filed with the State Ethics Commission show that from Jan. 1, 2015, through May of this year, 13 colleges and universities, including several technical colleges, collectively paid at least $1,532,550 to in-house and outside lobbyists.

The state’s three main research universities – the University of South Carolina, Clemson and Medical University of South Carolina – recorded the three highest total amounts of lobbyist payments for the period, accounting for more than half of the overall total.

Those universities also have among the highest tuition costs for in-state undergraduate students, S.C. Commission on Higher Education records show.

Ask why Clemson needs lobbyists, university spokesman Mark Land told The Nerve: “Clemson, like most public universities across the nation, engages regularly with state government officials on a wide variety of topics from state funding to academic programming to economic engagement to health and safety issues and more. As a state institution, Clemson also has a need to inform lawmakers and state agencies on the impact of proposed legislation.”

Lobbyist payments reflect only part of what’s spent by colleges and universities to curry favor with lawmakers and other officials. Clemson, for example, has a six-person “Office of Governmental Affairs” housed in a high-rise office building across the street from the State House. The total annual cost of rent, parking and storage for that location is $77,740, “of which 25 percent is apportioned to governmental relations,” Land said.

Three of the Clemson’s six staffers are registered lobbyists with the Ethics Commission, including Angie Leidinger, vice president for external affairs, whose annual salary with the university is $248,018, according to the state salary database. In contrast, the university reported $10,035 in total lobbyist payments to her in the first five months of this year, Ethics Commission records show.

Under state law, those payments are supposed to reflect time spent “promoting or opposing” specified legislative, gubernatorial or agency matters “through direct communication with public officials or public employees.” Lobbyists can be paid hourly, per project or per legislative session, according to Courtney Laster, the Ethics Commission’s general counsel.

Joren Bartlett, director of governmental relations for the 16-school S.C. Technical College System, serves as “our liaison with state, local and federal delegations,” though she is not a lobbyist because she does not “directly ask lawmakers to support or oppose legislation,” agency spokeswoman Kelly Steinhilper told The Nerve. Bartlett’s annual salary is $109,457, according to the state salary database.

But a separate group known as the South Carolina Association of Technical College Commissioners has a lobbyist, Ethics Commission records show. And three colleges in the Technical College System – Florence-Darlington Technical College, Greenville Technical College and Horry-Georgetown Technical College – have separately paid lobbyists since 2015.

Besides that, the Midlands Technical College Foundation and Trident Technical College Foundation – private, nonprofit fundraising arms for those schools – made lobbyist payments over the period, records show.

A state budget proviso enacted for fiscal 2011-2012 and renewed annually bans state agencies from using general funds to pay their own employees to lobby or enter into contracts with outside lobbyists, though it doesn’t prohibit agencies from using “other” funds – college tuition, for example – for those purposes.

Under state law, tuition and other student fees can be used by public colleges and universities to pay off certain bonds that typically are issued for construction projects. The Nerve reported in August that the total debt incurred by mostly four-year public schools skyrocketed nearly 93 percent to $2 billion from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2017, and that over the past 10 years at four-year schools, tuition and required fees for in-state undergraduates jumped by about 40 percent on average.

The school debt load per full-time student, including graduate students, averaged $17,583 as of June 30, 2017 – a nearly 60 percent hike from fiscal 2008, Commission on Higher Education (CHE) records show.

At USC – the state’s largest university – the total school debt load per full-time student was $14,623 for the main campus and medical school, according to CHE records. Its annual tuition and required fees last school year for in-state undergraduates at the main Columbia campus was $12,262, excluding the law, medical and pharmacy schools.

In comparison, in-state undergraduate tuition and required fees last school year totaled $14,712 at Clemson and $13,917 at MUSC, excluding the medicine, dentistry and pharmacy schools, CHE records show. The total school debt load per full-time student at those universities was $26,309 and $23,153, respectively, as of June 30, 2017.

And individual loan debt for South Carolina college and university students remains a heavy burden. A recent study by the career website Zippia found that the Palmetto State leads the nation in the highest median debt ($26,563) for graduates of public and private nonprofit schools.

‘Willfully’ violated state law

Ethics Commission records show that since 2015, USC has made a total of nearly $273,000 in lobbyist payments, including payments to four members of the Columbia office of the McGuireWoods Consulting firm. The lobbyists include Billy Boan, a former longtime S.C. House member and budget director under former Gov. Jim Hodges, who heads the consulting firm’s Columbia office.

Derrick Meggie also is a registered lobbyist for USC. His annual university salary is $162,000 as the director of state government relations and adjunct faculty member, according to the state salary database.

Boan isn’t the only college or university lobbyist for with strong ties to the S.C. Legislature. For example, Shirley Hinson, a registered lobbyist for the College of Charleston and the college’s $96,846 director of government relations, is a former longtime House member.

USC’s lobbying efforts were partly the focus of a first-ever state grand jury report on public corruption involving the General Assembly, released last week by special prosecutor David Pascoe, the solicitor for Orangeburg, Calhoun and Dorchester counties.

The report concluded that “probable cause exists” that the university “willfully violated” state lobbying law by “failing to disclose” longtime political consultant Richard Quinn Sr. as “its lobbyist.”

As part of the released grand jury report, USC admitted no wrongdoing in a “Corporate Integrity Agreement,” which requires the university to pay $90,000 to the state, amend its 2012 and 2013 lobbying filings with the Ethics Commission, and “appoint or designate a compliance officer who shall be responsible for ensuring” that it “accurately reports its lobbying activities” to the commission.

No current or former USC officials, including president Harris Pastides, who earlier this month announced his retirement, faced criminal charges related to the state grand jury probe. All charges were dropped against Quinn Sr., though his business pleaded guilty to failure to register as a lobbyist as part of a plea deal.

Following is a breakdown of total lobbyist payments reported by colleges and universities to the Ethics Commission from Jan. 1, 2015, through May 31 of this year:

  • Clemson*: $325,525
  • University of South Carolina main campus: $272,976
  • Medical University of South Carolina**: $225,885
  • Horry-Georgetown Technical College: $133,248
  • Lander University: $100,000
  • Francis Marion University: $89,763
  • Coastal Carolina University: $85,289
  • College of Charleston: $83,040
  • Winthrop University: $71,988
  • Greenville Technical College: $68,000
  • Florence-Darlington Technical College: $44,336
  • South Carolina State University: $27,000
  • USC Upstate branch: $5,500

*Clemson amended its filing for the first five months of this year, lowering its total payments from $151,234 to $68,332. University spokesman Land told The Nerve that in its “initial submission, we accidentally attributed all of the salaries of our three registered lobbyists earned to direct engagement with state officials, rather than a portion of it as we have always done in the past.”

**Ethics Commission records show an equal amount in reported lobbyist payments over the period by the Medical University Hospital Authority.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. 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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