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Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying Costs SC Citizens $3 Million Annually

July 21, 2008

Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying Costs SC Citizens $3 Million Annually

Government is growing faster than our incomes, and a wide range of positive reform has been squashed behind the scenes. There is a common reason for both of those two movements – the power of taxpayer-financed lobbyists. Lobbyists for state agencies and local governments are paid for with taxpayers’ dollars to petition lawmakers for even more public spending – their job is to take the budget process to the back halls of the Statehouse and away from the open floor of the legislature.

Instead of spending public dollars on core functions of government, South Carolina counties, cities and school districts are paying high-powered lobbyists to fight for more public money and thwart accountability and transparency. In 2006, taxpayers spent almost $3 million on publicly financed lobbyists – that was a 15 percent increase from the $2.5 million spent in 2005.

Taxpayer funded lobbyists present a conflict of interest and waste taxpayer money.  The Legislature’s annual budget process gives state agencies and local governments many opportunities to explain and justify their budgetary needs, and to make the case for important projects. University presidents, state agency heads and other public entities should have many qualified employees to answer legislators’ questions and present information to the General Assembly.  The public should never finance lobbying, especially when they pay to fight for an agenda they often do not support.

There were 77 taxpayer-financed lobbyists during the 2006 legislative session, according to the South Carolina Ethics Commission. The public can view a list of registered lobbyists online, but any detailed information about dollar amounts must be purchased by citizens from the Ethics Commission.

Local governments pay a range of lobbyists, each working to influence specific bills or line items. Greenville is an example of how many different lobbyists are on the public payroll of just one city:

  • Greenville County —  $36,000
  • City of Greenville —  $32,347
  • Greenville Water system —  $28,816
  • Greenville school district — $9,085
  • Greenville’s public charter high school — $13,067
  • The Greenville County solicitor —  $40,000
  • The City Recreation District —  $14,707

The government entities of Greenville also paid dues to associations that have registered lobbyists. These include:

·        The Municipal Association —  $244,104

·        The Association of Counties — $97,519

·        The Cities Coalition  $54,000

·        The School Boards Association —  $68,237

There are more lobbyists at the state level, including the following listed in 2006:

  • SC Judicial Department for $55,000
  • SC Department of Agriculture for $47,537
  • SC Department of Transportation for $37,341
  • SC Department of Natural Resources for $15,687

The public university and community college systems employ a majority of South Carolina’s taxpayer financed lobbyists.  Higher education was allocated over $3,366,000,000 in 2006 and received hundreds of millions more through tuition lottery scholarships.  Higher education spent more than $500,000 in public dollars to lobby.

The Ethics Commission filings list a total of $2,910,195 in taxpayer money spent on lobbyists in 2006. But that is not the whole picture. The South Carolina lobbying laws define lobbying as the “promotion or opposition through direct communication with public officials” of legislation, executive orders, elections and appointments. This definition allows lobbyists to report just a fraction of their actual fees. The remaining portion of their retainer, including compensation for time spent drafting a bill, conducting legal research or developing a legislative strategy, need not be reported to the commission.

Some lawmakers in Columbia have begun to recognize the dangers of taxpayer-funded lobbyists. Since 2001, several bills have been introduced in the House prohibiting state agencies, instrumentalities and departments from hiring lobbyists with public money.  Those bills have not made it to the floor.  Governor Sanford also issued an executive order banning cabinet agencies from contracting lobbyists. Bills recently introduced in Texas and Oklahoma have gone further, preventing local governments and authorities from hiring lobbyists, as well as prohibiting public bodies from using public money indirectly through association dues to pay for lobbying.

The Policy Council has been researching taxpayer funded lobbying for many years.  As part of our transparency research, the Policy Council will delve deeper in to the laws and regulations regarding taxpayer funded lobbying across the states, and closely monitor the practice in South Carolina.

Nothing in the foregoing should be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder passage of any legislation.  Copyright 2008, South Carolina Policy Council Education Foundation, 1323 Pendleton Street, Columbia, South Carolina 29201.  Visit the Policy Council on line at http://www.scpolicycouncil.com.

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