State House for Sale: Bolton says legislators getting benefit from position but failing to improve SC

Associate EditorJune 28, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— MANY LAWMAKERS who begged voters to send them to Columbia to help make our state better have done a much better job of improving their own lives, while failing — and at times refusing — to address critical public issues. And the absence of a strong ethics law has made it difficult to spot conflicts of interest or determine who’s working for us or against us.

This state’s residents ought to be incensed. South Carolina’s workers are among some of the worst paid, its people are among the sickest and it’s children are among the least cared for in the nation. We need a governor, lawmakers and constitutional officers whose primary focus is on improving the lives of this state’s people rather than trading on their public offices to fatten their wallets, acquire perks or improve their political stature, even as this state’s people go lacking.

Some lawmakers might point to a few positive things they’ve accomplished — such as sentencing reform — but the fact is that many of the biggest problems that our state faces today were our biggest problems a couple of decades ago. To the degree there has been any movement, it’s been incremental, at best. There’s a laundry list of critical issues that state elected leaders have punted on year after year after year.

We can’t get comprehensive tax reform. We can’t get true government restructuring; and although we’re as close as we’ve ever been to replacing the Budget and Control Board with a Department of Administration controlled by the governor, that won’t be real until it’s real. We can’t get statewide 4K or other meaningful public school reform because year after year we have to endure repeated attempts to extract money, parents and students from the public schools and inject them into the private arena. Most recently, we can’t get expanded Medicaid to cover the hundreds of thousands in our state who are without health care despite the fact that the billions we reject — billions we help raise through our federal taxes — are going to be spent anyway, although elsewhere.

But while this state’s people can’t get this and can’t get that, our elected officials are getting plenty, thank you.

Being a member of the S.C. General Assembly has its advantages. Once you join the club, tickets to various sports and other events begin to flow. And, for some, campaign coffers get deeper, careers crank into high gear and earning potential escalates.

For sure, some work hard at their full-time jobs outside the General Assembly to improve their lives and that of their families. But let’s be real. Serving in the Legislature or as governor or a constitutional officer gives public officials a platform from which they can benefit, sometimes rather handsomely. If people think lawmakers can do them a favor, they will do one for them first.

Sometimes serving in an elected position gives you a leg up on business opportunities, public and private. It comes with the territory, particularly when you’ve got lawyer legislators who practice in front of boards and commissions they fund. And what about lawmakers who just happen to have interests in pharmaceutical or medical supply companies that snag hefty Medicaid payments or who are connected to construction companies that happen to land highway construction contracts?

Don’t take my word for it. Read State staff writer Adam Beam’s Sunday package, “State House for Sale: SC’s ‘very murky’ system,” which reveals that lawmakers reported $19.5 million in income and other benefits on their 2013 statements of economic interest; $7.4 million of that came from fees legislators earned from government entities, including Medicaid payments, and from legal cases heard before the state Workers’ Compensation Commission, which depends on legislators to set its budget.

Who are some of the big money-makers, you ask?

State Sen. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson Republican who owns a pharmacy and medical-supply company, reported receiving $1.6 million in Medicaid payments. And state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, who co-owns a medical-supply company, reported $197,656.40 in Medicaid payments. Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, owns a pharmacy that made $302,000 in sales to the state Medicaid program.

Some lawmakers don’t disclose money earned from the state, claiming they either didn’t now about it or didn’t know they were required to report it. Yeah, right.

Put Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, in that category. Mr. Leatherman is a minority owner of the Florence Concrete Co, which was awarded $735,000 in state Department of Transportation contracts in 2012. But the senator didn’t report that — or any amount; he said he didn’t know about it, despite this being a company he founded in 1955 and managed until 1994. He simply reported that he has a minority stake in the company.

Mr. Beam also points out that lawmakers received at least $19,500 in free tickets to events that include USC and Clemson football games, the RBC Heritage golf tournament and the Carolina Cup. They also were afforded the opportunity to travel around the country to make speeches and presentations. Legislators reported $158,000 in gifts.

Who wouldn’t want a job with those kinds of perks, particularly if you can pick and choose what to account for in terms of public reporting?

But it ought not be that way. In this day and age, we need to know a lot more about who our lawmakers are working for and what they’re being paid so that we can match that up with their votes and official actions as public officials.

The Legislature had an opportunity to pass a bill this year that would have required them to disclose all of their sources of income, both private and public. Ours is the lone state in the union that doesn’t require such disclosures. But the proposed law wouldn’t clear up what some legislators claim is confusion about what they have to report from public sources, which apparently is badly needed. The bill passed the House, but the Senate adjourned without taking it up; senators are expected to debate it in January.

We need an improved and effective ethics law, period. But whether lawmakers decide to be more open about their booty or not, they must do the work they were elected to do, not simply get what’s coming to them while leaving South Carolinians poor, in ill health and otherwise lacking.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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