Scoppe: Public benefits for private lobbyists?

Associate EditorSeptember 19, 2013 

Cindi Ross Scoppe

  • Who gets state benefits

    Thirteen “service organizations,” whose employees do not work for government, participate in the State Retirement System. Eight of them, denoted in bold, also participate in the State Health Insurance Program:

    Municipal Association of South Carolina

    Palmetto State Teachers Association

    S.C. State Employees’ Association

    S.C. Education Association

    S.C. High School League

    S.C. Association of Counties

    S.C. Association of School Administrators

    S.C. Association of School Boards

    S.C. Athletic Coaches Association

    S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association

    S.C. Midlands Emergency Medical Service Mgm. Assn.

    S.C. State Firemen’s Association

    S.C. Sheriff’s Association

— THE FOLKS AT the S.C. Municipal Association and the S.C. Association of Counties spend a lot of their time trying to hold the Legislature to the promises of the Home Rule Act — that is, to allow elected city and county council members to make decisions about how to run the communities they were elected to run, rather than being dictated to by legislators. Often, that means begging legislators not to roll back what little autonomy those local elected officials have.

It’s an agenda I share, and one everybody who believes in representative democracy and majority rule and local control ought to share.

But should that entitle those groups to state employee benefits? Specifically, to state pensions and state health insurance.

Similarly, should employees of the school boards’ association and the school administrators’ association and teachers’ organizations and the state employees’ association — all of which are, like the city and county associations, essentially lobbying organizations — receive state employee benefits?

I’ve never thought it made any sense to allow people who aren’t government employees to participate in the State Retirement System and the state insurance system, but I hadn’t focused on it until I saw an Associated Press article last month with the headline, “Private lobbyists get public pensions in 20 states.” Which puts a pretty fine point on it.

In South Carolina, the pension system is open to people who work for a “service organization” whose membership is composed entirely of teachers or state employees, if their salaries come from membership dues or public funds. In some cases, the State Employees Association, for instance, members pay their own dues; in others, such as the municipal and county associations, dues are paid by the city or county. A separate law allows employees of these lobbying groups to participate in the state government’s health insurance program.

The employees and their employers have to pick up the full cost of the benefits, but while employee and employer contributions and investment proceeds are supposed to cover the full cost of the pension system, the fact is that the taxpayers are on the hook to bail out the system if that ever doesn’t work. Moreover, the sheer size of the pension system makes it a better investment than most South Carolinians can afford, even when the taxpayers aren’t subsidizing the dues directly. Ditto the state health insurance program.

Legislators here and elsewhere decided years ago to let employees of these government lobbying groups participate in state benefit programs because they figured that associations of city, county and school officials serve governments and the public. Which I tend to think is generally accurate.

But I still have a hard time understanding why the Municipal Association’s lobbyist gets to participate in the state pension system when the Chamber of Commerce lobbyist who’s arguing the other side of a bill can’t. The questions get even dicier when you start asking about education lobbyists, whose agenda — which I also generally share — is increasingly out of favor among legislators and thus could be argued conflicts with the public’s agenda.

Now it certainly could be argued that letting lobbyists for these organizations purchase state benefits pales in comparison to the scandal of state agencies keeping lobbyists on their payrolls. At least with the government-association lobbyists, we’re only facilitating their benefits; state agency lobbyists are full-time government employees, and it is outrageous that we have them.

It’s true that government agencies need to be able to answer legislators’ questions and communicate with legislators about problems in the law that need to be cleared up. And for large agencies such as DHEC, or agencies such as the Revenue Department that legislators are constantly calling on for information, it’s probably more efficient to designate one person to be responsible for tending to the Legislature. But state agency lobbyists don’t just answer legislators’ questions, or support the agencies’ policy positions. They lobby for money. That is, the taxpayers pay them to lobby for more taxpayer funding.

A few lawmakers talk a good game about wanting to eliminate this practice, and Gov. Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford before her bragged about prohibiting their Cabinet agencies from having lobbyists. But by that they mean the agencies no longer contract with private-sector lobbyists to represent them; the agencies still have employees who look and walk and quack like lobbyists when they’re at the State House.

But here’s what makes the “service organization” lobbyists worse: The state agency lobbyists work for entities that acknowledge that they belong to and work for the public. They and the agencies that employ them have to comply with all the rules of government, from obeying the ethics law and salary restrictions to following the procurement code and making their records public. The service organizations — whose employees receive government benefits because some operate on dues that are paid out of taxpayer-funded budgets and all are presumed to be operating on behalf of governmental entities — don’t.

In fact, the S.C. Association of School Administrators is in the middle of a long-running lawsuit involving efforts of a public-school critic to see its financial records and communications. The association says it’s a private entity and thus is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. Or any other laws that apply to government.

Which is to say that the entities consider themselves public when that suits their needs, and private when that suits their needs. And that makes their participation in the state pension and health-insurance systems even more troubling than the fact that government agencies spend our tax dollars lobbying the Legislature.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.


Who gets state benefits

Thirteen “service organizations,” whose employees do not work for government, participate in the State Retirement System. Eight of them, denoted in bold, also participate in the State Health Insurance Program:

Municipal Association of South Carolina

Palmetto State Teachers Association

S.C. State Employees’ Association

S.C. Education Association

S.C. High School League

S.C. Association of Counties

S.C. Association of School Administrators

S.C. Association of School Boards

S.C. Athletic Coaches Association

S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Association

S.C. Midlands Emergency Medical Service Mgm. Assn.

S.C. State Firemen’s Association

S.C. Sheriff’s Association

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