For all of South Carolina’s ethics problems, the wining and dining and too-cozy relationships that used to drive legislative agendas have pretty much dried up since the Legislature passed a law to put some distance between lobbyists and lobbied.
The 1991 law, passed in response to the federal Lost Trust corruption sting, says anyone who gets paid to influence the Legislature must register as a lobbyist and file annual reports with the state. Lobbyists may not spend any money on legislators or other state officials, and they can’t donate to political campaigns. The state also limited how much organizations that hire lobbyists can spend on state officials.
Gov. Henry McMaster wants to provide nearly $430 million in tax relief in the upcoming state budget, representing about a quarter of the anticipated surplus.
The twin purposes of the law are to prevent lobbyists from using money to make their points and to force special interests to reveal their spending to influence our Legislature.
But while lobbyists no longer wield influence the way they once did at the Statehouse, they’re increasingly using those disturbing methods at the local level, where there are no such restrictions. Columbia’s State newspaper reported this summer that it found a strong correlation between $32,000 in gifts that officials from Midlands school districts accepted from construction companies, architects and law firms and the contracts those officials awarded for multimillion-dollar projects.
There’s no reason to think the same sort of corrupting behavior is not happening across the state, as local governments and school boards have more money to spend and as cities and counties consider ordinances that would have a big effect on businesses and lobbying organizations.
Technically, the S.C. ethics law applies to cities, counties and schools as well as state government. But in one important way, it doesn’t.
Clearly, it’s time to impose some restrictions on local lobbying. On Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster proposed just that. His state budget proposal requires anyone who lobbies city or county councils or school boards to register as a lobbyist and abide by the same restrictions as Statehouse lobbyists.
We don’t like the Legislature dictating local decisions to city and county councils, such as tax rates and land-use policies. But it’s perfectly appropriate to standardize policies about how government operates, by deciding for instance that all governments have to release certain types of information to the public and that all elected officials must report any campaign donations they accept, as state law already does.
It’s also appropriate for the Legislature to apply the same lobbying rules at the local level that apply at the state level. Indeed, some local governments have attempted to adopt their own lobbying restrictions, but that’s duplicative and probably less effective.
Mr. McMaster paired the local lobbyist restrictions with a plan to double the lobbyist registration fee from $100 to $200 a year to provide more money for “increased investigation and enforcement efforts by the State Ethics Commission.”
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That’s a worthy goal, and the pairing means it really is related to the budget, at least technically. But this is a question of what our state policy should be toward lobbyists, not simply how a state agency should spend its money, so it really ought to be addressed through separate legislation.
And while they’re at it, lawmakers should expand the definition of lobbyist to include people who have figured out ways to get around the current definition: lawyers, for instance, who meet with legislators to consult on how to draft legislation, or to explain their work, as well as advertising and public relations specialists and economists and engineers and other professionals who provide their own explanations.
The 1991 lobbying law was a good one. Legislators just need to bring it up to date to cover problems that didn’t exist back then.