In the 66 days of this year’s regular legislative session, corporations and special interest groups catered almost 100 meals and receptions for legislators and state officials.
Some of the groups, including the S.C. Academy of Physician Assistants, were hosting an event for only the first or second time, hoping to familiarize General Assembly members with what their group does and advocate for specific legislation. The Physician Assistants’ May breakfast fell two days after Gov. Nikki Haley signed S. 448, an update of the Physician Assistant Practice Act, into law.
“It was really more of a ‘thank you,’ ” Janet Jordan, the Physician Assistants’ executive director, said of the breakfast, which cost her group $2,204.
During the 2013 legislative session, special interests hosted 95 breakfasts, luncheons, dinners or receptions for legislators and others.
The total tab for those events is not known.
State ethics law requires only groups that also employ a lobbyist to disclose what they spend wining and dining legislators. Of the 95 groups that held special events, 24 also employed a lobbyist. Those 24 groups spent more than $140,000 on meals and receptions for legislators.
The legislative thank-you meals and receptions regularly cost nearly $6,000 apiece. At least two held during the last legislative session cost far more — one almost $17,000 and another $20,000.
While those hosting the events say they are only are an opportunity for their members to meet face-to-face with lawmakers, others take a dimmer view of the gatherings. Critics say the events demonstrate that groups must pay to ensure that their issues will play before the Legislature. That pay-to-play culture excludes groups that do not have the financial resources to pay for legislative access.
“The lobbying influence is too strong in South Carolina. The only way to get anything done is to pay a lobbyist, and those who can’t pay can’t get anything accomplished,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. “The events are a very small part of it, but the money as it relates to government is a damaging influence, and we have to figure out how to take it out.”
The breakfast put on by the Physician Assistants was that group’s second legislative event.
Last year, when it hosted its first, the group said it wasn’t tracking any legislation. Instead, it hoped “to make legislators aware of our existence, and familiarize them with the profession because not a lot of people know what we do,” Jordan said.
The introduction paid off, Jordan said.
The updated Physician Assistant Practice Act that was passed into law during the 2013 session makes it easier for physician assistants to practice in South Carolina.
“There were significant changes to the law that needed to be made,” Jordan said. “There was lots of red tape, and with the impending implementation of Obamacare, there are going to be so many more people needing medical services. The medical infrastructure in South Carolina is just not there to provide that kind of coverage without physician assistants.”
‘A collaborative effort’
The Physicians Assistants are not alone in breaking bread with — and toasting — legislators and other state officials.
Other groups, including the S.C. Bar Association, hold annual events for the General Assembly, the price tags of which regularly top $10,000. While the bar’s legislative reception is relatively new, it held joint events for legislators and state judges in previous years, according to State Ethics Commission filings.
During a legislative session, the Bar Association and Home Builders Association of South Carolina, two of the top three spenders on legislative events, can be tracking track dozens, or even hundreds, of bills.
The bar noted 116 “bills of interest” to its members during this year’s session. But very few became law, said assistant executive director Leah Johnson.
“The amount of legislation that would be advantageous to a lawyer blows the roof off every year,” Johnson said. “We may actively advocate for five or six, and usually two or three get passed.”
Some, including a revision of South Carolina’s probate laws, take multiple sessions to complete.
The probate code revision was 700 pages long at the end of the 2012 legislative session but had not yet passed. The bar’s reception fell at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, and the probate revision passed in late May, toward the session’s end.
Bar lobbyists helped the legislation reach that final stage, Johnson said, adding, sometimes, the necessary connections for lobbying begin at receptions. “Legislative outreach helps us access all interested parties and make a collaborative effort.”
Getting face time
Even when they say they don’t have issues to push, some groups still go all out for legislative events.
The Home Builders Association of South Carolina shelled out nearly $17,000 for its annual “Bird Supper,” which benefitted disabled veterans.
“We didn’t go over any legislation whatsoever,” said Mark Nix, the association’s executive director. “It was more of an opportunity for members to meet with elected officials and talk about issues.”
One of the most commonly touted benefits of the wining-and-dining events is the opportunity for members of statewide groups or industries to get face time with their representatives and talk one-on-one about choice issues.
For “Hospitality Day” at the State House, 80 members of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and the tourism industry were bused in from Charleston alone.
“There’s no question that having Hospitality Day at the State House offers a very positive opportunity for substantive dialogue between stakeholders in the tourism industry and lawmakers,” said John Durst, president and chief executive of the Restaurant and Lodging Association. “It provides a unique and very productive opportunity for people in the tourism industry across the state to meet with and talk with lawmakers about issues of interest.”
Others want that access too.
The city of Columbia held its first reception this year, teaming up with Richland County and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce for an evening event at 701 Whaley.
The event cost “around $20,000” – none of it taxpayer money – that the three groups raised, a city official said. (The city’s ethics filing shows a $6,800 expenditure on the event.)
The event was an effective way to connect city and county officials to state lawmakers, according to Ray Borders Gray, a spokeswoman for the city’s department of government affairs.
“We wanted them to be able to be in a room and stand together and to be able to talk,” Gray said. “This wasn’t an opportunity to talk about one particular issue. But it’s an opportunity for them to really get to know one another.”
While one piece of legislation on the city’s radar, the Abandoned Buildings Revitalization Act, passed during the session, other city issues didn’t make it to the finish line, making next year’s lobbying effort even more important, Gray said.
In addition to county and city officials, next year’s reception for legislators will include members of Richland County’s two school boards to stir more communication between different levels of government, she added.
‘Another layer of access’
Members of the bar say its meetings with lawmakers benefit both legislators and lawyers.
“Many who serve in the General Assembly are not lawyers. They’re educators or insurance agents or members of the clergy,” said Bar Association executive Johnson. “It helps to get members statewide in a place to meet their legislator and start relationships that will help down the road. Non-lawyer legislators will reach out to us for help on legislation, and we have the ability to hit the ground running and assist.”
Members of groups including the Home Builders and the Restaurant and Lodging associations also say they benefit from opportunities to meet with representatives in a casual meal-time setting.
But constituents who aren’t a part of a trade organization or a special-interest group may lose out because they do not have the money to host special events to get access to legislators, critics say.
“Some legislators spend a lot of time being legislators, for example, retirees who have the time to focus on being a legislator and don’t have outside work,” said John Crangle, a whistleblower on state ethics violations in the ’90s who now heads the S.C. chapter of the Common Cause watchdog group. “Then, there are some legislators who don’t even show up for the session. They miss time after time or they arrive late or leave early. They’re very difficult to get to for constituents.”
Today’s wining and dining is much different from events held before the Ethics Reform Act of 1991, Crangle said. Before that reform, legislators sometimes were whisked away to Hilton Head or Charleston for lavish receptions, including stays in upscale hotel rooms and even rounds of golf — all on lobbyists’ dimes.
While restrictions are much tighter now, Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, a libertarian advocacy group, said the events still give members of certain groups a leg up on the typical constituent.
“I doubt very seriously that at these parties you’ll find the average constituent,” Landess said. “It’s not that throwing a party for legislators and having some beer and good food is going to buy a vote, but it’s another layer of access.”
A small piece of the puzzle
Not all legislators attend the events.
“A lot of people try to avoid them,” Rep. Rutherford said. “The public looks at it like it’s free food. But most members can afford their own lunch and whatever it is comes with, getting that group’s message.”
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, said he never goes to breakfasts or lunches. He said he uses that time to prioritize the work that comes with his chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee and doesn’t want to waste a group’s money by committing to an event if he may have to cancel at the last minute.
Courson added he rarely attends evening receptions. He lives in Columbia and said he prefers to have dinner with his family. But Courson does attend events given by organizations that he is a member of, including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.
While not all state legislators frequent the events, enough make appearances to please the sponsors.
“It’s much easier for legislators to hear from their constituents one-on-one, and we’re connecting elected officials with their constituents,” said Nix of the Home Builders.