Businesses bankroll SC House, Senate candidates

‘Money talks at the Legislature;’ House, Senate candidates rake in gifts

abeam@thestate.comOctober 28, 2012 

Businesses bankroll SC House, Senate candidates

  • Money talks A look at some of the top donors to state House and Senate candidates this election cycle. S.C. Trucking Association: $107,250 S.C. Automobile Dealers Association: $94,420.12 Palmetto Leadership Council: $84,000 (1) SCANA: $79,000 Progress Energy: $74,000 (2) Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough: $68,000 Friends of the Farm Bureau: $67,500 S.C. Bankers Association: $66,800 AT&T: $66,250 TitleMax: $62,750 NOTES: (1) House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s political action committee, which has donated to GOP candidates for the Senate and House. (2) Now part of Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based utility Figures come from The State’s analysis of state ethics reports. Donors are limited to a maximum of $1,000 per candidate, but can give more if a candidate has a primary and, then, a general election or if they donate to retire a candidate’s debt from a previous campaign. Figures do not include donations from political parties, which can give up to $5,000 per candidate.

Who is contributing?

You can see who has contributed to S.C. House and Senate candidates by going to the website of the S.C. Ethics Commission at ethics.sc.gov. Once there, click on “campaigns” and, then, click on “public reporting,” where you can review contributions by candidate or by contributor.

The 2012 S.C. House and state Senate elections are brought to you by the trucking industry, car dealers and utility companies.

Those businesses are among the largest donors to legislative campaigns this year, according to The State newspaper’s review of more than 30,000 political contributions dating back to 2009 for Senate races, which are held every four years, and to 2010 for House races, held every two years.

Among the top donors is the S.C. Trucking Association. It has given more than $107,000 to 120 candidates thus far for the Nov. 6 election. The S.C. Automobile Dealers Association has given more than $94,000.

Utility companies – SCANA, Progress Energy, Duke Energy, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon – have combined to donate more than $360,000.

Law firms – traditional donors in local politics – have opened their wallets, too, including: $68,000 from the Columbia-based Nelson Mullins law firm; $60,500 from the Association for Justice, formerly the Trial Lawyers Association; $45,000 from the Columbia-based McNair Law Firm; and hundreds of thousands from hundreds of attorneys across the state.

All together, donors – individuals and businesses – have contributed more than $12 million. Nine of the largest business donors alone – the Trucking Association, Automobile Dealers, SCANA, Progress Energy (now part of Duke Energy), Nelson Mullins, Friends of the Farm Bureau, S.C. Bankers Association, AT&T and TitleMax – made more than 5 percent of those contributions.

“Money talks at the Legislature,” said Democratic political consultant Tyler Jones, who also works with the House Democratic Caucus.

“They wouldn’t keep giving money if it didn’t work.”

Were you wearing your seat belt?

What do business donors want from the State House? In some cases, it is hard to say.

For example, SCANA, the Cayce-based utility, has donated $79,000 through its various political action committees, according to state ethics reports.

“We don’t have anything we want to try and discuss,” SCANA spokeswoman Eric Boomhower said, adding the utility monitors legislation throughout the year and “responds to any kind of business that could have an impact on our business or our customers.”

Other groups, including the S.C. Trucking Association, are more outspoken.

“Fighting the personal-injury lawyers is hard,” said Rick Todd, the association’s executive director. “It’s a battle you can’t quit.”

Todd says his group wants to make it easier on trucking companies in the courtroom. He says personal-injury attorneys target trucking companies because of the high insurance coverage they federally are required to have.

Specifically, if someone is injured in an accident involving a trucking company, an attorney for the company cannot ask at trial whether the person was wearing a seat belt as state law requires.

“It is the only violation of the motor-vehicle code not admissible in the court of law,” Todd said. “It can’t be used to consider if you may have been hurt less if you would have worn your seat belt.

“Lawyers are against it,” Todd added, because “they don’t support anything that could reduce the value of their claim and make them work harder.”

To push the issue, the Trucking Association has become one of the state’s most prolific donors.

Records show it has given to more than 120 candidates – more than half of the 234 legislative candidates.

The contributions are part of the association’s “three-legged stool” approach to lobbying: Paid lobbyists, active members and campaign contributions.

But the association’s agenda – and donations – puts it at odds with another big spender: lawyers. The S.C. Association for Justice, a group of trial lawyers, has donated more than $60,000 to legislative candidates. It adamantly opposes allowing seat-belt use to be considered in accident suits.

Attorneys say allowing jurors to consider whether an injured person was wearing a seat belt in determining damages would amount to “punishing innocent victims.”

“When an 18-wheeler runs into a car or a Prius or something, (wearing a) seat belt is not the issue,” said Matthew Richardson, president of the S.C. Association for Justice. “What we really need are for truck drivers to slow down and drive more carefully.”

Contribute or ‘get in line’

S.C. political consultants say the sometimes competing interests of big donors mean there’s no guarantee a donor will set the agenda at the State House.

But it does save a donor a spot at the front of the line when trying to get a lawmaker’s attention – an invaluable asset once the Legislature convenes and the business of government consumes lawmakers’ calendars.

“If you are not contributing and you’re not taking part in the process, and you come knocking on the door in January? Yeah, get in line,” Republican political consultant Luke Byars said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to sell a representative on your issue, but at least you have a chance to make your case.”

A good example is the S.C. Dental Association.

Records show it has donated more than $45,000 to candidates.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Health and Human Services decided not to include $3.75 million in its budget for emergency adult dental care for Medicaid patients. But lawmakers – pressured by the Dental Association – put the money back on the House’s budget agenda, when it would not have been discussed otherwise. Eventually, lawmakers decided not to include the money in the state budget.

HHS also has not included the money in its state spending request for next year. But that likely will not stop the Dental Association from asking for it again.

“I don’t think anybody is going to get everything they ask for just because they donate money. But I think it does help that you can at least have your issues heard,” said Phil Lantham, the Dental Association’s executive director.

‘Little more than pawns’

Some say the system of big-money donations gives big business influence at the State House at the expense of those who don’t have money or a powerful organization to champion their cause.

Consider state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the Florence Republican who is chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. An analysis of Leatherman’s contributions shows that more than 60 percent are from corporations or political action committees.

Some say that should change.

When lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they plan to consider an overhaul of state ethics laws. John Crangle, director of the S.C. chapter of Common Cause, says lawmakers should consider limiting how much money corporations can give.

“If lawmakers are getting 70, 80, 90 percent of their (campaign) money from political action committees and from corporations, they really are little more than pawns for the people that are giving them this kind of money,” Crangle said.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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