SLC Donors Spent Heavily On Lobbying

July 10, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveSouth Carolina’s three public research universities and the State Ports Authority gave financial or in-kind donations to the recent Southern Legislative Conference in Charleston.

Public support for the conference, however, was dwarfed by contributions to the event from many of the largest companies in South Carolina.

Those firms collectively spent more than $2.2 million to lobby the General Assembly this year, a review by The Nerve has found.

Some of the donors to the conference, such as BMW, are the types of companies that have received tax breaks and other incentives from the Legislature, either through special legislation or the state tax code.

Many of the contributors interact frequently with the General Assembly, whether on regulatory matters or other issues.

The conference took place July 31 through Wednesday at the ritzy Charleston Place Hotel and Conference Center.

The event featured workshops and policy sessions on a range of issues, as well as speeches by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, who grew up in Dillon; U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; and U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.

Economic development was a key topic at the conference, especially areas in which state government and certain local jurisdictions in South Carolina, such as Columbia, are heavily vested:

  • “Promoting the Creative Economy”;
  • “Alternative Fuel Technologies and Economic Development”; and
  • “Economic Incentives and State Tax Systems”

The day before the conference began, a news release was posted on the S.C. Statehouse Blog touting the estimated economic impact of the event – $3.5 million “for South Carolina” – and expected attendance – nearly 2,000.“No state general funds were appropriated in the budget to host” the meeting, the release says. Instead, “significant private sector donations were utilized.”

The statement quotes S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston and 2009-10 chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference:

“Because of recent budget cuts, we felt it was important to dedicate taxpayer dollars to the most core government services and independently raise the funds needed to host this event,” Harrell says in the release.

“I want to thank the many generous members of our business community for all they have done to ensure that South Carolina, and all that our state has to offer, is properly and positively displayed during this conference.”

But it wasn’t just private enterprise that supported the event.

Before it started, The Nerve obtained a conference fundraising flier and an S.C. House e-mail indicating that House Clerk Charles Reid and other House staffers worked an unknown amount of time on the taxpayers’ dime to coordinate donations to the event and help organize it.

The flier offers five levels of financial support for the conference and details the benefits for each category.

Following The Nerve’s initial July 29 report on the conference, The Nerve obtained a copy of conference material listing contributors and the levels at which they gave.

Multiplying the number of donors in each category by the minimum amounts they could give produces, conservatively, an estimated contributions total of almost $1.5 million.

That figure, combined with the donors’ $2.2 million-plus in lobbying spending, equals close to $4 million spent by the conference sponsors on legislative activities this year.

The Medical University of South Carolina was among the “Palmetto” donors – those that contributed $25,000 or more.

Palmetto donors were invited to “a special event recognizing their significant contribution with Speaker Harrell, his wife Cathy, and other conference leaders at the Harrell Family Home at 28 South Battery, across from White Point Gardens at the Battery,” the flier says.

Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and the State Ports Authority were among the “Cypress” donors – $5,000 to $9,999.

In e-mails to The Nerve, MUSC spokeswoman Megan Fink described the medical university’s support as an in-kind contribution.

“We were given that (Palmetto) recognition for our donated medical service and time during the days of the conference,” Fink said. “No money was paid for this sponsorship.”

She added that, “We do this for all gatherings in Charleston of 2,000 or more people.”

The flier identifies Reid as the point person to receive donations. Reid is the highest-paid House employee, earning $145,000 annually, according to the state salary database.

“All checks should be made payable to the ‘The Council of State Governments’ and forwarded to the attention of Charles F. Reid, Clerk of the House of Representatives, at P.O. Box 11867, Columbia, SC 29211,” the flier says.

The Council of State Governments is a nonprofit state government advocacy organization headquartered in Lexington, Ky., with an office in Washington, D.C.

The Southern Legislative Conference, based in Atlanta, is part of a nationwide network of four regional groups organized under the Council of State Governments.

States, including South Carolina, pay population-based membership dues to the Council of State Governments.

Prior to the conference, officials associated with the event at both the state and conference levels declined to return phone calls or answer e-mailed questions from The Nerve.

The unanswered questions included the amount of South Carolina’s membership dues to the Council of State Governments.

The state spending transparency database shows several thousand dollars in legislative expenditures related to the Southern Legislative Conference and the Council of State Governments over the past three years. At a minimum, those amounts were:

 

  • $2,400 to the Southern Legislative Conference from the House in 2009-10;
  • $3,950 to the Council of State Governments from the House in 2008-09; and
  • $1,200 to the Council of State Governments from the House in 2007-08 and $850 to the organization from the Senate that year.

All of the payments are listed as “out-of-state registration fees” in the category of “travel.”There were 34 Palmetto donors of at least $25,000 to the conference, according to the new information obtained by The Nerve.

Those contributors and others include many of the state’s largest companies. A review of State Ethics Commission records shows that a high percentage of them are heavy hitters in State House lobbying.

Collectively, the donors to the conference spent more than $2.2 million to lobby the Legislature this year, The Nerve’s review found.

Palmetto contributors alone topped $1.6 million in their combined lobbying spending. Some of the largest examples, in rounded amounts:

  • AT&T: $186,800
  • Blue Cross/Blue Shield of South Carolina: $184,400
  • Waste Management: $157,300
  • The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina: $119,500
  • SCANA: $87,900

“Silver Crescent” donors gave $15,000 to $24,999 to the conference and include TitleMax, which paid out $114,700 in lobbying expenditures, and Norfolk Southern, which reported $89,700 in lobbying costs.The South Carolina Hospital Association was a “Magnolia” contributor ($10,000 to $14,999) and expended $159,000 on lobbying this year.

Like Clemson, USC and the Ports Authority, the South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association, which spent $27,700 on lobbying, was a Cypress donor.

In the run-up to the conference, Reid did not supply facts The Nerve sought in an open-records request regarding donations to the event and state employees dedicating work time to it.

“Although the flier requests that donations be sent to Charles Reid (to then be forwarded to SLC) the House has not maintained a record of the check donations,” Reid said in a written reply to the request.

“In reality many of the donors have mailed their checks directly to SLC (the Southern Legislative Conference). Thus, SLC has maintained the records of contributors/contributions for the conference. Mrs. Colleen Cousineau is the executive director for SLC and you can contact her directly …”

Cousineau was among those who did not return messages from The Nerve.

Concerning state employees working on the conference, Reid said “the House has no information or documents pertinent to this request.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.