Editorial: Close lobbyist loophole in SC ethics law

08/04/2013 12:00 AM

08/02/2013 5:35 PM

AS IF THE General Assembly’s failure to overhaul the ethics rules for legislators and other elected officials weren’t bad enough, The State’s Jamie Self provides us with a fresh reminder of how insufficient our state’s lobbying law is.

Oh, the requirements and restrictions on registered lobbyists are pretty good. In fact, the no-cup-of-coffee rule, which prohibits registered lobbyists from buying anything for legislators, even a cup of coffee, remains the gold standard.

The problem isn’t what the law requires and limits; it’s who it applies to. Or doesn’t apply to.

It doesn’t apply to people who spend less than $500 a year lobbying, and the State Ethics Commission says salary isn’t counted toward that $500 threshold for people whose primary job isn’t lobbying. Even when their work is indistinguishable from that of lobbyists, as was the case in this year’s battle over sex-education programs in public schools, which pitted registered lobbyists who wanted to change the law against essentially unregistered lobbyists fighting to maintain the status quo. Even though the people who were not registered worked for organizations that stood to lose millions of dollars in tax funds if the law was changed.

The problem with letting people act like lobbyists without being treated like lobbyists goes beyond the fact that they and their employers don’t have to report what they spend on lobbying. Although that’s a significant problem.

State law also prohibits registered lobbyists from making campaign donations or working on campaigns — although some lobbyists always have gotten around that prohibition by unregistering at the end of the legislative session and reregistering in January. (The fact that the Legislature never has seen fit to close this loophole is still more evidence of how uninterested lawmakers long have been in making the law do what it claims to do.)

And that no-cup-of-coffee rule that prohibits lobbyists from spending any money on legislators also prohibits their employers from spending on individual legislators; they can only entertain whole groups, such as committees. If the people buttonholing legislators while their employers are paying their salary aren’t lobbyists, then they and their employers are free to wine and dine those legislators and shower them with gifts.

House leaders tried this year to close this loophole, but their proposal went way too far, by eliminating that $500 threshold and requiring anyone who speaks to legislators on behalf of anyone else to register as lobbyists, pay the $200 annual registration fee, file reports and accept the restrictions on their activities. That would have pulled in citizen-advocacy and other volunteer groups from the PTA to Little League parents, treating them the same as high-powered lobbyists for special interests that benefit directly and specifically from legislation.

For the most part, the $500 threshold makes sense. But when people are lobbying while they’re being paid, their pay needs to be counted toward the $500. There are other tweaks that would ensure that people who walk and talk and quack like lobbyists are treated like lobbyists, but simply making that one little change would go a long way toward injecting some honesty into the ethics law, and pulling paid advocacy out into the sunlight.

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