COLUMBIA — The debate hinged on whether a bill reshaping the state’s sex education law would ensure that public school students learn medically accurate information about sex and its risks or, indirectly, encourage them to have sex by showing them how.
But driving the April debate before a S.C. House panel was a fight the groups did not mention – a tug-of-war for more than $1 million a year in state money.
The stakes are high.
For at least a decade, teen pregnancy prevention groups have been lobbying lawmakers to keep the money flowing to the programs they run. If lawmakers rewrite state law – changing what students should learn about sex – the direction of public money for pregnancy prevention programs also could shift.
“Have you ever heard the expression ‘follow the money’?” said state Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, a key negotiator in determining who would be eligible to apply for sex education money in this year’s state budget. “When there’s money involved, it’s always that (driving the issue).”
Hundreds of companies and groups seek state money each year, for causes ranging from sex education to industrial expansion. To press their cases, the groups employ hundreds of lobbyists.
More than 500 corporations, industry associations and advocacy groups registered with the state and made $8.1 million in direct payments to lobbyists from January to May, according to recent state ethics filings. During that same period, more than 330 lobbyists registered with the state, including one lobbyist – top-earning Richard Davis – who was paid $645,252 by his clients.
But not everyone trying to influence lawmakers at the State House registers with the state as a lobbyist as required by the state’s ethics law, some lobbyists and ethics experts say.
“The perception among lobbyists is that there are many, many people who do not register and should register,” said Ashley Hunter with McKay Public Affairs and a lobbyist whose clients include the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, one group vying for the pregnancy prevention money. “Our ethics laws are written to prevent (lobbying without reporting),” she said, adding, “It’s unfortunate that loopholes are found in every law.”
“There could be clarification on how we define lobbying” in the law, said Ted Riley, a partner at the Riley Pope and Laney law firm and the state’s second highest-earning lobbyist, according to recent disclosures. “One thing we try to do,” Riley said of his firm, “is not even go in the gray area.”
But some, the lobbyists and others say, operate openly in that gray area of the state’s lobbying law, winning millions of state dollars.
Not everyone who lobbies has to register.
S.C. law allows people to lobby without registering as long as they are not paid directly to lobby and their expenses do not exceed $500 a year, said Cathy Hazelwood, a State Ethics Commission attorney.
That is a weakness in state law, government watchdog groups say, an arbitrary threshold that allows lobbying groups to decide for themselves whether they should register.
“If I’m involved in lobbying, I should register and disclose,” said John Crangle, the unpaid director of Common Cause South Carolina.
“If you looked at what they are doing, you’d see that they are spending more than $500 on lobbying activity,” Crangle said of those who operate in the ethics law’s gray areas. “How else could they support that kind of advocacy?”
‘Just part of the process’
More than two decades ago, lawmakers updated the state’s ethics laws in an effort to shed light on the influence of lobbyists and end a culture of bribery that prompted a federal corruption investigation and indictments of lobbyists and lawmakers.
Now, lobbyists must disclose how much they earn and from whom. The groups they represent also must say how much they spend on lobbyists, events for elected officials and political contributions.
The process gives the public some idea of what special interests are paying out to drive public policy and spending.
But despite disclosure rules, much of the influence that groups exert on lawmakers – and the money and motivations driving them – remains hidden from public view, while lawmakers are lobbied, in part, behind closed doors.
Consultants, legislative liaisons for state agencies and others – none registered lobbyists – are present throughout the legislative process, taking notes, answering questions, monitoring bills or working with private clients who want “eyes and ears” at the State House, said Rex Kneece, whose law firm provides lobbying and consulting services.
In the sex education debate, for instance, the groups pushing agendas included those that employed registered lobbyists and some that did not, including Heritage Community Services, a Charleston-based abstinence curriculum developer that has received almost $5 million in state money over the last decade.
Sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference between the lobbyists and non-lobbyists, based on their activities, according to state Rep. Donna Wood, R-Spartanburg.
The women representing Heritage who talked to Wood, for instance, did what lobbyists do – they came to the state representative’s office and asked her to back their position, opposing the sex education legislation.
“They contacted me – they contacted every legislator on the committee and were asking for support,” said Wood, a freshman legislator, of the Charleston-based nonprofit. “They just want to secure their place at the table.”
“That’s just part of the process,” Wood said. “I look at that as information.”
Occasionally, it is hard to tell lobbyists from people expressing their personal opinions about an issue, Wood said, adding she assumes people engaging in direct-lobbying activities are registered. “Maybe, we should make all the lobbyists put badges on that say, ‘I’m a registered lobbyist,’” she joked.
Forcing more disclosure would be tricky, Wood said, because, as an elected official, she wants to keep her door and mind open to the public’s perspectives.
But it might help the public and lawmakers to know the financial benefits at stake for groups that are trying to drive public policy – just as lawmakers now must disclose their public sources of income to reveal potential conflicts of interest, Wood said.
“If they are going to lobby, they should be registered,” Wood said. “You need to know what’s on the line and why they’re lobbying.”
Weighing in on sex ed
The sex ed debate flared this year after New Morning Foundation, a private, nonprofit reproductive health advocacy group, assisted in drafting language for a bill revising the state’s sex education law.
The bill, introduced by state Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, would have required sex education teachers to be trained, students to receive medically accurate information, and schools and districts to report what they teach in sex ed classes, supporters say.
Following criticism at a subcommittee hearing, Skelton’s version was rejected and replaced with a compromise between abstinence and safe-sex advocates. That bill now is before the House Education Committee, awaiting consideration next year.
From January through May, New Morning paid four lobbyists $18,500 to push Skelton’s bill, a response to New Morning’s findings that more than three out of four of the state’s 85 public school districts do not comply with at least one requirement of state law governing reproductive health education.
Another supporter of the bill is the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which paid McKay Public Affairs' Hunter $10,500 from January through May to promote the bill and to ensure Prevent Teen Pregnancy continues to receive state money for its programs.
Prevent Teen Pregnancy has received more than $5.2 million from the state since 2002 to train teachers and advise districts on approaches to teaching sex education. The organization has worked on some level with more than half the school districts in the state over the last decade, director Forrest Alton said.
Opponents of Skelton’s bill included groups also vying for abstinence money. However, the opponents did not employ lobbyists registered with the state. Instead, their employees reached out to lawmakers to give input on how to ensure the opposing groups continued to remain eligible for state money.
For example, S.C. Parents Involved in Education, run by Sheri Few, a Lugoff Republican political consultant, has concerns about the legislation. Few says she has not contacted lawmakers about it but adds that she has talked to House lawmakers about state money for abstinence programs.
Few’s organization has received about $1 million in state money for its abstinence programs since 2008. Few said she has worked with about 12 school districts on their abstinence programs and is developing an abstinence curriculum written specifically for an African-American faith community.
Few competes for state money with Heritage Community Services, which has received more than $4.8 million in state money since 2002 to support its programs, including publishing its own abstinence curriculum.
Six S.C. school districts reported using Heritage curricula in response to the New Morning Foundation survey of districts, conducted through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Anne Badgley, Heritage’s founder and director, said the New Morning report “does not accurately reflect our services,” without saying specifically how.
Asked for the number of schools or a list of school districts using Heritage’s curriculum, Badgley decline to provide the information, citing privacy concerns for schools and students, most of which Heritage evaluates for internal research that it publishes, she said. She also said the “numbers and populations served are in constant fluctuation due to changing funding streams,” making it difficult to know how many students, schools or districts are using Heritage’s curriculum.
Money in play
Lawmakers involved in the sex-ed fight describe behind-the-scenes jockeying for state money, and suspicions of unfair competition or money not being used wisely.
Heritage received state money for its programs as early as 2002. In 2003, however, the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy started receiving part of the state’s sex-ed money. After debate over which group should get more of that money, lawmakers eventually agreed to a “truce,” splitting the money between the two groups.
Then, lawmakers put in place a competitive bidding process for the money meant to open the door for new groups. Competition for the abstinence money has been on the rise. Each year the budget proviso, setting the eligibility requirements to get state money, undergoes changes that pass between the House and Senate.
There have been efforts to disqualify competitors from getting pregnancy prevention money through revisions to the budget proviso that determines who is eligible, some lawmakers and others say.
Few, of Parents Involved in Education, said she has reached out to House lawmakers, including Greenville state Rep. Loftis, to ensure her group and another newly formed Upstate abstinence group can compete for state money every year.
Few’s organization has been awarded state abstinence money twice. Both times, Heritage objected, arguing that Few’s group was ineligible.
Few and Rep. Loftis, who helped write House eligibility requirements for the money, said they suspect Heritage has worked with state Senate allies to give Heritage the advantage in competing for state money.
“There’s reason to believe that, in recent years, the proviso has been wordsmithed to the effect that one entity (Heritage) would get the money,” Loftis said.
“When you eliminate all competition, it’s like an earmark,” Few said.
Heritage director Badgley said she has fought for high standards – not to edge out competition.
State Sens. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and Chip Campsen, R-Charleston – co-sponsors of a Senate version of the budget proviso detailing who is eligible for the pregnancy prevention money – both rebuffed accusations that Heritage received favoritism in the budget process.
“That’s incorrect,” Grooms said. “The proviso, in last year’s budget, it allowed for competition between the abstinence groups.”
While critics say Heritage and groups like it should register with the state as lobbyists, Campsen said reaching out directly to lawmakers is a common way for interest groups to “keep the option open for (their groups) being able to be awarded this money.”
“(That’s) all they’re doing, like anyone else who lobbies or communicates about an item in the state budget,” Campsen said of Heritage, whose board of directors includes the Charleston Republican’s sister, according to the non-profit’s website.
But some watchdog groups say groups, including nonprofits, should disclose when their efforts to influence lawmakers move away from making statements on issues toward asking for money.
Having a financial stake in the outcome of legislation should be the threshold for requiring someone to register as a lobbyist, said Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council.
“It’s one thing to approach a lawmaker as an individual or as an affiliated group if you aren’t asking for money – that’s free speech,” Landess said. “The difference comes where there is a financial benefit.”
Spreading the message
Heritage has an advocacy arm, the Healthy Family Formation Coalition, through which it has shared its concerns about the proposed sex education legislation, using newsletters and a 30-page document detailing why it opposes the bill.
Badgley said her staff researched the bill to help her group understand its potential impact on children. Then, staffers distributed the document to lawmakers and went over it with some legislators in their offices.
Supporters of the bill say Heritage misrepresented what the proposal would do.
Heritage argued that Planned Parenthood, the health care nonprofit that provides abortion services, was behind the bill. But Planned Parenthood was not involved in writing it and has not lobbied for it, said its lobbyist, Sloane Whelan.
The Heritage document also says several state health and education agencies are working to outlaw abstinence education programs, and Skelton’s bill would have encouraged sex by providing detailed illustrations of sexual activity.
Following public comment at the April subcommittee meeting where opponents used similar rhetoric, Skelton grew frustrated.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that the red herrings have been brought up on this bill,” Skelton said. “If you’re satisfied with the level of teen pregnancy, if you are satisfied with the level of abortions, if you’re satisfied with the level of STDs and high-school dropouts ... if you’re satisfied with the high medical costs, then vote against this bill.”
Representatives of New Morning and the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and lawmakers who support revisions to the sex education law, frequently dispute claims they are anti-abstinence. They add Skelton’s proposal would not have taken away the ability of local school districts to decide what curriculum to use, just required they do more reporting of what is being taught.
“There’s nothing in the proposed amendment or current language (of the bill) that would encourage teens to have sex,” said Doug Bryant, a lobbyist for New Morning and former director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. “That’s absolutely counter to what we would put forward.”
Hunter, the lobbyist for Teen Pregnancy Prevention, said opponents of the bill used “scare tactics” to thwart its passage.
“Every year, there are different and unique efforts that are made to confuse the issue,” she said. “That’s a lobbying tactic.
“If you aren’t sure where your votes are and you’re not sure where it’s going to come out, just confuse the issue so that legislators won’t want to deal with it.”
Level the playing field
Nonprofits should push their missions, as long as they follow state and federal guidelines for lobbying, said Madeleine McGee, president of the S.C. Association of Nonprofit Organizations.
And, despite its critics’ skepticism, Heritage says it does.
Badgley, of the Charleston abstinence nonprofit, said she would register as a lobbyist if her organization’s actions warranted it. But its lobbying activities this year only cost $468, below the $500 threshold, she said.
Badgley arrived at the amount by considering staff time for seven staff members who spent a total of 16 hours calling, emailing and visiting lawmakers “to educate them regarding our concerns about the impact (the sex education bill) could have on the youth of our state.”
State Ethics Commission attorney Hazelwood says Heritage likely is operating within the state’s ethics law. To qualify as a lobbying expense, an employee must be paid to lobby, Hazelwood said, not paid a salary that sometimes includes lobbying duties.
Crangle, director of Common Cause, disagrees with Hazelwood’s interpretation of the law, saying a person’s salary and any other material or travel costs should count toward the $500 threshold.
The state’s lobbying law is weak, Crangle said, allowing groups engaged in lobbying to decide whether their activities reach the $500 threshold.
“It’s hard to know whether they’re actually lobbying or not, or crossing the threshold,” Crangle said. “That’s the problem with not registering and not disclosing.
“You don’t know how much they’re spending, (and) you don’t know what the bills are that they’re working on – that’s a huge omission in the disclosure process.”
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