Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, plunked the spreadsheet down and waited -- waited to see if the other senators he had called to the meeting would see what he saw.
In the small neat boxes of figures, the spreadsheet showed a collective $100 million in state dollars siphoned away each year from the school districts the senators represented. Provisos slipped in the state budget over the years had gone largely unnoticed by representatives. Those provisos, along with a tweaked funding formula that penalized wealthier counties, were quietly redirecting millions to other school districts. It was enough money to build three high schools every year.
The coastal senators not only got what the Beaufort County Republican was saying -- they got incensed. The group vowed to use its collective political clout to blow out the offending provisos and re-tweak the formula to direct the education dollars to their coastal school districts.
And they, along with their respective State House delegation members, succeeded. By 2013, the lawmakers were bringing in an additional $66 million for their school districts -- a 59 percent increase. For Beaufort County School District leaders, it meant nearly $16 million in 2013, up from $13 million. The new dollars bolstered teachers' salaries, special education programs and the district's early childhood education program.
But Davis and the senators don't take full credit for the boon. Long-time lobbyist Lynn Stokes Murray, employed by the Beaufort County school board, was the person behind the curtain, pulling together figures and creating the tell-tale spreadsheet that plainly revealed what was meant to be hidden.
Click or tap here to meet a person behind the label "lobbyist"
Her most prized skill: Decades-long relationships with lawmakers who trusted her explanation about the little understood way the state doles out education dollars and were willing to make deals.
Critics say using lobbyists is a dirty game that school districts should avoid. Taxpayer money benefiting lobbyists' wallets instead of the classroom is a prime example of what's wrong with the state's political system, they contend. Lobbyists are doing the work House members and senators were elected to do, they add.
Most egregious, it's the proverbial squeaky wheel getting the grease, said Ashley Landess, director of the S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Columbia that advocates for transparent government.
"It's not about real reform. It's not about making the systematic changes that will improve the state's education system for all students," Landess said. "It's about more money for those who push."
What do we think?
Click or tap here to read the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette's editorial on this subject
Many other S.C. leaders agree. In fact, the Beaufort County and the Horry County school districts are the only two that currently employ State House lobbyists.
Beaufort school leaders defend the practice. Employing lobbyists is an unfortunate reality in the political game of school funding -- one they discuss in a quiet, apologetic voice until they get to the part about the payoff.
For the roughly $125,000 the Beaufort County district has paid Murray's employer, the Columbia-based McNair Law Firm, over the past four years, the district can point to millions more it has received. Case in point: one pot of state money that yielded no money for the district for three consecutive years is anticipated to produce nearly $7 million this year.
Note: The chart shows only state dollars received through the Education Finance Act and the Education Improvement Act
Source: Beaufort County School District.
"I understand people say that (using lobbyists) is bad and school districts don't belong in that business or could better use that money," said Bill Evans, the Beaufort County school board chairman. "But I see it as a good investment, and it helps our taxpayers."
And with a historic education funding fight on the horizon, some Beaufort County leaders say lobbyists are needed now more than ever.
When taxpayer money chases taxpayer money
Government lobbying government has long been railed against by many of the state's politicians. Former Gov. Mark Sanford, now a U.S. representative whose district includes Beaufort County, signed an executive order banning his cabinet agencies from hiring lobbyists -- an order still in effect today.
And in 2011, the S.C. General Assembly passed a first-of-its-kind mandate that prohibited all state agencies and institutions from using general funds received from the General Assembly to hire outside lobbyists or pay employees to lobby on their behalf.
But a gaping loophole allowed other types of funds to be used to employ lobbyists, including college tuition, fees state agencies charge and money raised from local taxpayers. And so state agencies, municipalities, colleges and the occasional school board continued their lobbying activity.
The trend has long infuriated lawmaker Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, who has repeatedly sponsored legislation to end the practice of government lobbying government, including a bill this year.
"There's something intrinsically wrong with taking taxpayer dollars for the purpose of hiring lobbyists to gather more taxpayer dollars," Merrill said.
But in the case of the Beaufort County school district, Merrill refuses to criticize.
School district winners and losers
Click or tap here for our interactive graphic showing how key education funding streams have grown or declined at every school district in the state since 2009
"I think Beaufort County and the other coastal areas are an anomaly. They are indeed donor counties. It's easily recognizable that what is going on is unjust, and they've been getting shortchanged," said Merrill, who represents a Lowcountry district that also benefited from the funding tweaks, raking in an additional $17 million between 2010 and 2013 from the state's two primary pots of education dollars.
Members of the Beaufort County school district are also conflicted about their use of lobbyists.
"If our primarily goal is to increase funding, and you just look at the numbers, this has been a fruitful relationship," said JoAnn Orischak, a Beaufort County school board member who was on the losing side of a recent vote to renew the contract with the McNair Law Firm. "But I think you could dispute whether their efforts contributed to the increased funding, because after some of the conversations I've had I'm not convinced that McNair is solely responsible for the increases. So I guess it's just a judgment call."
Indeed, both Davis and Murray give credit to the county's representatives in the House, including Rep. Bill Herbkersman and Rep. Shannon Erickson, for getting the changes through.
"But I don't think it would have been possible without Lynn," Davis said. "She was instrumental."
It's a path to more taxpayer money that is catching on. While no official count exists, the number of school districts around the country employing lobbyists at both the state and federal level appears to be growing, say education observers.
"School districts and public colleges used to get more money from the state. And now they're having to up their efforts," said John Crangle, a longtime lobbyist for the South Carolina chapter of Common Cause, a nonprofit that pushes for open and accountable government. "There's such a shortage of public funding that they feel a desperate need to use any means necessary. And I don't think it's just happening in South Carolina."
In recent months, media outlets across the nation -- from Arkansas to Alaska, from Tennesee to Texas and from Washington state to Wisconsin -- have run articles, questioning the use of lobbyists by local school leaders.
While some states have half-heartedly pushed back, it hasn't worked. Nebraska, for example, banned schools from using state money for lobbying expenses in 2010. But local taxpayers' dollars were still allowed to be used, meaning that lobbying has not only continued, but increased.
Long term, more lobbying by local schools may mean changes that taxpayers don't want, predicts Landess. "That could include the ability to raise taxes or grow local government bigger."
Sen. Davis: 'There's deliberate opaqueness'
So what can a lobbyist accomplish that elected officials can't?
To understand that, you have to understand the parochial, what's-in-it-for-my-district culture of the State House, said Davis. Making a compelling argument that the coastal school districts weren't getting their fair share of state dollars wouldn't have changed anything.
"The easiest thing for me to have done would have been to make the principled argument (for more state funding for Beaufort County) and then said to voters, 'Well, I got up there and made the argument. Sorry the other senators didn't agree.' But I feel a lot of pressure to get results given the amount of dollars involved."
About 37 percent of the $6.6 billion general fund budget is marked for public education, making who gets the money one of the fiercest debates at the State House.
"But only a handful of legislators understand how the formulas work and know who the winners and losers are," Davis said. "To say there is no transparency is a gross understatement; there's deliberate opaqueness."
And so Davis became a student of education funding, chairing a committee in 2010 that pulled apart some of the state's complicated funding formula to determine why some districts were getting more and others less.
The results shocked Davis. For instance, of the approximately $160 million Beaufort County sends to the state that is then used to pay for statewide public education, only about $75 million comes back to the county's schools -- a roughly two-to-one ratio with Beaufort County students on the losing end.
Once Davis figured out why Beaufort was receiving the amount it did and how to alter it, he needed help putting the information into easy-to-understand formats, compiling a list of districts in the same situation to build a coalition of affected lawmakers, educating those lawmakers on why they were receiving the amount they were and fending off attacks from those who stood to lose.
And that's where Murray came into play. She and her team tracked down data from at least three different state entities just to make the spreadsheet. They strategized on which lawmakers had to be convinced to get the changes passed and what it would take to convince them. They wrote up talking points for Davis and attended committee meetings.
"It is like sausage making, and it's very messy," Davis said. "But I was sent up there (Columbia) to get results. And if they don't come from the state, then they have to come out of Beaufort County's taxpayers' pockets."
Winning at the expense of others
But more dollars for some districts means fewer dollars for others.
Click or tap here to read more about the challenges faced in the Allendale County School District
In the rural Allendale County school district, just 70 miles northwest of Beaufort County, the funding tweaks punched a $360,000 hole in its budget between 2010 and 2013. While hiring a lobbyist might have fended off the blow, it's a luxury that the cash-strapped school board didn't consider.
Instead, Allendale and the state's other poor, rural districts have taken a different tact, suing the state of South Carolina in 1993, claiming it failed in its duty to provide an adequate education for poor students. In November, justices agreed, ordering state legislators to overhaul its broken education funding formula. What the General Assembly comes up with is likely to be in place for a generation or more.
"We will have to rely heavily upon our legislative representatives to plead our case to redesign the proposed funding formula so districts such as Allendale will not be so drastically hit," said Timothy Hall, chairman of the Allendale County school board.
Meanwhile, the Beaufort County School District is going the extra mile, renewing its contract with the McNair Law Firm -- and has increased the firm's annual pay to $37,500, from $25,000.
"We're about to readjust formulas that have been in place for 40 years so it's important to have all hands on deck, including Lynn," Davis said. "We've got to use whatever leverage we have. We cannot afford not to be engaged."