Beaufort County lawmakers rely more on PAC money

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort

State lawmakers from Beaufort County are benefiting from donations from political action committees, organizations that attempt to influence legislation by lobbying and making contributions to candidates.

That includes Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who once vowed he would not accept any PAC money.

New financial quarterly reports show the majority of money Davis and most of the county's House members raised between October and December came from the groups.

The two exceptions are newly elected Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, who received $500 from the S.C. Builders PAC, a small part of the nearly $11,000 raised this quarter, and Sen. Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican whose district includes Lady's Island and surrounding Beaufort County areas, who received $250 from the CenturyLink Employees' PAC, a small piece of about $1,300 he raised.

As for other lawmakers:

  • $6,300 of the $11,875 Davis raised was from PACs. That includes contributions from the Realtors PAC, CIPAC, the state's captive insurance PAC and the SCANA Employee PAC. Some PAC contributions -- including donations from the state's builders PAC and the law firm, Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough -- went to help pay down debt from Davis' 2008 primary race.
  • $2,325 of the $2,825 Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, raised came from PACs, including the S.C. Republican Women's PAC, the Myrtle Beach Lodging PAC and a couple of Grand Strand PACs representing the area's restaurants and golfing industries. She also received money from S.C. certified public accountants.
  • $1,000 of $2,200 raised by Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head, who is running for the 1st Congressional District seat, came from the same Grand Strand and Myrtle Beach PACs.
  • $3,750 of the $4,250 Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, raised came from PACs. Contributors include the Abbott Laboratories Employee PAC; Tennessee-based National Health Corp. PAC, which promotes the interests of hospitals and nursing homes; and IFAPAC of South Carolina, an insurance and financial-services group.
  • "PAC money is a huge and growing problem," said John Crangle, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause South Carolina. Crangle has monitored the growing amount of money from PACs and businesses flowing to candidates since the 1980s.

    "These PACs donate the money for a reason. They're doing it in their own interest for additional influence over the candidates," Crangle said.

    Still, Crangle said it's better that most of the local lawmakers are getting money from local and regional PACs, which are more likely in touch with local residents' wants and needs, than out-of-state PACs that often know little about the state.

    Davis, who vowed during his 2008 primary for the Senate to not accept PAC money -- a promise he kept during that initial race -- now accepts it.

    "In my opinion, too many legislators in Columbia make decisions based on what lobbyists tell them -- or worse, because of the special interest money they have taken," Davis said in 2009 after being elected. "I don't take PAC special interest money and am fully able to focus on doing what works for us in Beaufort County."

    Davis said it has been eye-opening to see the cost of being responsive to his constituents, while also spending about six months of the year in Columbia away from his law practice.

    He now donates his legislative salary and his $12,000 yearly expense allowance from the state -- as well as part of his earnings as an attorney -- to pay for a full-time district director, who takes calls and helps his constituents. Davis taps contributors, including PACs, to pay for travel, campaigning and other expenses that lawmakers incur.

    "Unfortunately, money in politics is a necessary component," said Davis, who is still paying down debt on a personal loan he said he needed for his first race because he did not accept PAC money. "The (six-month) length of the session and the scope of work undertaken by the legislature in South Carolina, and the relatively small amount of compensation paid to legislators, makes it difficult for those who work for a living to serve. We need to drastically shorten the session term."

    Davis said he makes it clear to PACs and anyone else who donates money that he is unwavering in his support for limited government, lower taxes and school choice.

    "The ground rules have to be clear upfront that they're not purchasing influence," he said.

    Erickson, Herbkersman and Patrick also said PAC money does not influence their votes.

    Erickson and Herbkersman said many PACs are simply groups of local people interested in politics who have a right to donate.

    "I hear from the individuals who contribute to those PACs," she said. "It's not some entity out there that I don't have a relationship with."

    And in the current tough economic times, Erickson said it is better to receive money from PACs than individuals.

    "It takes money to run a race, and I have been lucky enough not to have opposition, so I have had very low expenses and have not put pressure on local private citizens to donate to my campaign because it's been a tough couple economic years," she said.

    Herbkersman said that when he was first elected, he refused to take donations from tobacco PACs, but now he does.

    "I felt that at the time if I took it, I was promoting tobacco use. And that's not true. My voting record clearly indicated I was against tobacco use," he said, adding that PAC donations do not influence lawmakers' votes. "They hope to find like-minded candidates, but it doesn't always work out that way."