School districts shouldn't need lobbyists to get fair share

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 19, 2014 

No doubt, the Beaufort County School District is getting a great deal by lobbying the state legislature.

The district received no money from one of the state's education funding formulas, the Education Finance Act, in 2009, 2010 and 2011. But after hiring the McNair Law Firm to lobby the General Assembly and urge adjustments to the EFA, the school district received more than $596,000 in 2012; $2.1 million last year and $3.9 million this year.

Now, school board members are deciding whether to continue the $25,000 per year contract with the law firm. That seems to be a no-brainer to us -- and to school board chairman Bill Evans. "All I know is we have been putting $25,000 in and getting over $3 million back, so it sounds like a pretty good return on investment to me," Evans said.

While we don't begrudge the school district a penny of the money received, it's disturbing that a school district must engage lobbyists to bolster its share of state dollars -- dollars that should be disbursed to districts based on a predictable, fair and transparent formula on which districts and the public can rely on year after year. Instead, the situation reveals lawmakers' willingness to tweak the formula when prodded. The squeaky wheel is indeed getting the grease.

And while $25,000 is a drop-in-the-bucket for the district, those dollars would be better spent in the classroom -- if only district leaders could rely on lawmakers to fairly fund school districts without the urging of lobbyists.

It also raises red flags for the state's many rural districts that lack the resources to hire lobbyists. Might these long-struggling districts get a greater share if only they could send hired guns to Columbia?

Government lobbying government has long been a problem in the Palmetto State. Many state agencies employ lobbyists to influence lawmakers every legislative situation. The same is true of many of the state's publicly funded universities including Clemson, the Citadel and MUSC as well as local governments and their governing boards, such as Myrtle Beach, Camden and even Beaufort County Council.

It's not as easy to list which state agencies employ lobbyists. In fact, a quick check of those registered with the S.C. Ethics Commission reveal only a handful, including the State Ports Authority and the Judicial Department. That's because an interpretation of state ethics laws in 2004 resulted in state agency employees who once were called lobbyists and filed financial reports as lobbyists were reclassified as "legislative liaisons" who do not have to file reports with the Ethics Commission.

Only nine of 17 state agencies that filed reports in 2001 did so again in 2004 after the interpretation. That number has dwindled even more since then.

Cathy Hazelwood, an attorney with the State Ethics Commission, correctly assessed the situation back in 2004. "It's the 'L' word -- lobbying -- that agencies want to avoid, even if lobbying is what they are doing," she told the Associated Press.

While state agencies have successfully hidden their lobbying work, one point remains crystal clear. State agencies lobbying state lawmakers is a vicious circle that abuses taxpayers.

Consider: the state takes money from taxpayers and gives it to state agencies to fulfill important state duties. Then, the agency uses some of the money to hire lobbyists to convince lawmakers to take even more money from taxpayers and give it to the agency.

To their credit, some have fought to end the practice. During his tenure, Gov. Mark Sanford banned his 13 cabinet agencies from hiring outside lobbyists.

And over the years, bills have been introduced to stop the practice, including one by Rep. Jim Merrill, a Daniel Island Republican -- but it failed.

We doubt reform is coming anytime soon. In the meantime, the Beaufort County School District must continue to rely on the McNair Law Firm to get its fair share of the pie.

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