domingo, julio 27, 2008

Lobbying expenses criticized

Lobbying expenses criticized

State agencies defend using public money

The Post and Courier
Sunday, July 27, 2008

COLUMBIA — In the lobby between the stately chambers of the House and Senate, they stand, 200, 300 of them, packed in like freshmen at a frat party. Each waiting, watching with an agenda.

They want money. They want say-so. They are power brokers.

These are the Statehouse lobbyists, and the salary for about 100 of them is paid for by taxpayers.

In 2007, Charleston-area public agencies and organizations sustained, at least in part, by taxpayers were on pace to have spent about $400,000 on lobbying elected officials, according to information from the South Carolina Policy Council, which compiled the most recent data available.

The nonpartisan think tank asserts that in 2006 taxpayers spent almost $3 million on publicly financed lobbyists, up 15 percent since 2005. The information is based on disclosure forms filed at the State Ethics Commission and includes national and state lobbying efforts.

"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," Bryan D. Cox, the council's communications director, said in a statement.

Ask the agencies spending the money on lobbying, and they'll argue dozens of reasons why it's a sound investment, why it makes sense to have someone on hand to answer questions and provide information to part-time legislators.

The term "lobbyist" has a bad connotation, but lobbyists function more as advocates or government affairs liaisons, the organizations say.

The Medical University of South

Carolina spends about $100,000 a year on its "legislative liaisons." MUSC President Dr. Ray Greenberg said the school uses nonstate funds when possible to pay for its three liaisons, two of whom are full-time. Greenberg also said that MUSC is a $1.7-billion-a-year enterprise that relies on only about 7 percent in state funding.

To point to "big wins" to prove the worth would be misleading, Greenberg said. The the liaisons help legislators, for example, address constituent concerns such as referrals for medical care and questions about applications for degree programs.

Further, the legislators, who earn $10,400 and work in Columbia just half a year, often need information on short notice, Greenberg said. Since MUSC is about 115 miles from the Statehouse, having the liaisons in the capital also helps guide regulatory and administrative tasks through the government processes, he said.

Charleston schools got into a flap in 2006 over hiring a contract lobbyist. That session dealt with high-stakes issues for districts as lawmakers were changing the basis for school funding. At the time, at least three districts had hired lobbyists in addition to the dues paid to advocacy groups, including the S.C. School Boards Association and the S.C. Association of School Administrators.

House Majority Leader Jim Merrill of Daniel Island said that he's introduced bills every session to outlaw the practice among agencies or quasi-government groups.

Gov. Mark Sanford banned his Cabinet agencies from contracting lobbyists. Merrill said, though, stopping the practice by legislation gets tricky; he hasn't received the needed support, and agencies can slip around a potential law's language. It's common for groups to change the title to reflect a different job description, even if the functions are essentially lobbying, Merrill said.

The Charleston County School district does not have a lobbyist per se but hires Clara Heinsohn, director of public affairs and volunteers, to work closely with the local delegation. "I wear a lot of hats, but I am definitely not a lobbyist," she said, adding that she had been to Columbia only twice during the legislative session.

Heinsohn said the majority of her time is spent engaging the public in the education process. She also works to keep the delegation apprised of district happenings and its needs.

"It's very important that every district develop a relationship with their delegation," said Heinsohn, who previously worked for the Senate Education Committee. "Public education is integral to the community. These are representatives appropriating money."

Howard Duvall, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, views its lobbying efforts as critical. The association spends about $245,000 a year on lobbying, which includes salaries for three staff members and the cost to put on receptions.

"Without having people to defend the powers of local elected officials, I think they would be quickly taken away by the General Assembly," Duvall said.

For example, he said, the association this year helped influence a new law to offer incentives to get fire sprinklers in more homes and businesses, an effort prompted by last year's Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston.

Municipal dues make up less than 7 percent of the association's budget, Duvall said. He also said that lobbyists are banned by the State Ethics Commission from trying to gain influence by providing elected officials with campaign contributions, entertainment, food and drinks or other perks.

Lobbyists help the lawmakers learn the difference between good and bad legislation and unintended consequences in a system that takes on about 2,000 bills every two-year session, Duvall said.

"Part of the function of the lobbyists is to give accurate, reliable information, to answer the questions of the part-time legislators," he said.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control is one state agency that employees lobbyists, spending $37,551 for the first part of 2007.

During the last session, an agency lobbyist was able alert lawmakers of the potential impact of a seemingly innocuous bill that would have cost the state an estimated $10 million and required pharmacists be stationed at all county health offices and clinics, said Thom Berry, director of the agency's media relations division.

"What we deal in is information, providing information to members of the General Assembly," Berry said.

Ashley Landess, president of the Policy Council, does not buy that argument. She said an elected official can get the same information for the good of the state from any local mayor, school board member or agency executive by picking up the phone.

"The public needs to be aware," Landess said. "They are paying the salaries of lobbyists who work to convince the General Assembly to spend more money."

Lobbying costs

The South Carolina Policy Council asserts that taxpayer-funded lobbying cost the state $3 million in 2006, although the impact on the budget is measured in exponential growth because the aim is for the lobbyist to bring more back to the agency or organization.

The agencies and organizations argue that the positions are needed, in part, to ensure that accurate and timely information is presented to the part-time Legislature. The following information also includes money spend on lobbying efforts in Washington.

The Policy Council released this data for the first five months of 2007, 2006 and 2005, respectively:

2007 2006 2005

MUSC: $48,227 $104,808 $103,174

The Citadel: $33,023 $39,702 $51,965

College of Charleston: $0 $31,394 $82,579

Charleston Water System: $15,000 $20,000 $20,000

Berkeley Electric Co-op: $3,501 $17,414 $14,791

Edisto Electric Co-op: $3,655 $8,293 $0

City of Charleston: $44,000 $68,000 $140,000

DEPT. OF HEALTH & eNV.: $37,551 $47,537 $46,393

DEPT. OF NATURAL RESOURCES: $9,414 $15,687 $17,444

S.C. Judicial Department: $55,000 $55,000 $29,167

State Ports Authority: $46,879 $124,772 $115,468

Municipal Association: $124,269 $244,104 $245,997

Association of Counties: $63,589 $97,519 $151,502

School Boards Assoc.: $27,516 $68,237 $69,554

Assoc. of School Admin.: $53,220 $123,635 $97,620

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-799-9051 orywenger@postandcourier.com.

Rodrigo González Fernández
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