S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, March 27, 2005
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/05.0327.influence.htm


COMMENTARY
More disclosure needed to highlight influence peddlers
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

MARCH 27, 2005 - - Not too many years ago, some state and local government meetings really were conducted in smoke-filled rooms.

Sunshine laws and the open-government movement created more transparency and accountability, but a modern-day equivalent of the smoke-filled room still exists: big money that pays to influence legislation.

Current state campaign law requires lobbyists and their employers to disclose a lot of information about contributions paid to political candidates to influence the outcome of elections. But when it comes to the next step - - influencing the outcome of matters before lawmakers - - there's virtually no disclosure required in South Carolina or any other state, according to state ethics officials.

At first glance, it might not seem too important. But when you consider the thousands of dollars some entities appear to be spending to try to get lawmakers to change how things are done that affect everyone in the state, it begs the question: Who is paying?

A case in point revolves around the so-called Put Parents In Charge proposal urged by Gov. Mark Sanford.

In ads reminiscent of those used by Sanford in his 2002 campaign ads, the S.C. Policy Council reportedly has paid at least $217,000 for television air time of Sanford promoting the proposal, which would siphon public school money to help parents pay for private education.

ALSO THIS WEEK

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KEEPING TRACK: New section

SCORECARD: Thumbs up/down and mixed reviews

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Putting aside the ethical question of Sanford receiving a political benefit for free by appearing in the ad, it makes one wonder - - who is really paying to push the Put Parents In Charge ad?

S.C. Policy Council President Ed McMullen refused to answer questions about the ad and its funders.

"That's none of your business," he said, adding that he wouldn't be interviewed because he was irritated about descriptions of the bill as a voucher proposal, instead of a tax credit measure.

(In reality, the objection is pure semantics because bill proponents want to control the language of the debate. But the practical effect is the same - - a subsidy of private education using public school dollars. Vouchers, or government grants, do it directly; tax credits have the same purpose, but do it indirectly.)

Voters deserve to know the people and money behind efforts to influence lawmakers' votes because policies that are passed will impact people across the state. Similarly, state lawmakers deserve to know who is behind efforts to persuade them to vote.

More accountability is called for. State lawmakers should consider beefing up campaign disclosure laws to cover efforts to influence legislation. Here are two ideas:

  • Tax forms. Taxpayers would know more about how lobbyist principals - - those who pay lobbying salaries - - fund public relations efforts if they were required to make their federal tax returns public when they provide other campaign disclosure paperwork. Such a requirement wouldn't cost anything to the companies, trade associations or non-profit organizations because they have to fill out the forms anyway.

  • Disclose media budgets. A tougher measure would be for lawmakers to require entities trying to influence public opinion on legislation to disclose their contributors when media advertising budgets exceed $5,000 per year. On a parallel track, lawmakers may want to consider requiring media outlets to disclose media purchases of more than $5,000 by interest groups when advertising seeks to influence the outcome of legislation.

Some may cry that such disclosure would be bad for the process. Hogwash. Disclosure doesn't prohibit anybody or group from doing exactly what they are doing now.

But disclosure increases transparency so voters have a better idea what's going on. In the long run, that could help modern-day smoke-filled rooms become a thing of the past.


RECENT COMMENTARY

McLEMORE'S WORLD
3/27: About husbands

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:


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KEEPING TRACK

In this new section, we will keep track of Statehouse Report's record of forecasting what goes on in the legislature. For example, at the beginning of the year, a commentary called for no roads to be named for living officials. Sixteen days later, House Speaker David Wilkins introduced such a measure. Latest example:

In Statehouse Report:

3/13: Sanford's wolf tactics wearing thin on lawmakers

In other outlets:

3/21: Governor's style irks lawmakers, Post and Courier


SOUTH CAROLINA SCORECARD

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political events from the past week:

Thumbs up

Mabry. The State Transportation Commission gave a thumb up this week to the job Betty Mabry is doing as the agency's top official, despite Chairman Tee Hooper's displeasure with her. The agency, however, will undergo an outside review.

Local governments. Municipalities, counties and environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief this week at the Senate Agriculture Committee killed provisions of a bill that would have stripped local authority to make some regulations stricter than the state. The measure provides some restrictions on local governments, but less stringent than earlier.

Townsend. Hats off to GOP Rep. Ronnie Townsend, the Anderson County Republican who heads the House Education and Public Works Committee. He continued this week to rail against the Sanford voucher plan by saying it wouldn't put parents in charge.

Thumbs down

Morris. Another slap in the face went to former Comptroller General and convicted securities violator Earle Morris, whose name was removed this week from a state road named after him.

Sanford. The governor suffered a big loss with a Senate Finance Committee snubbing his banner income tax cut proposal. He also seems to be headed to losing some political power with Senate efforts to rein in gubernatorial control of Santee Cooper.


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