The Buzz

How Koch-backed grassroots group helped kill SC gas-tax hike

Gail DeLorey says she began volunteering with Americans for Prosperity S.C. to fight an increase in the state’s gas tax because she loves her country.

DeLorey has volunteered with the organization for about a year, making calls in opposition to increasing South Carolina’s gas tax. “Until I found AFP, it was hard to find a way I could really matter,” said the retired Aiken resident.

DeLorey and other volunteers made more than 30,000 phone calls while state senators were considering a proposal to increase the 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, according to AFP.

Other AFP efforts to fight the gas tax hike included mailers sent across the state and robocalls pushing the same message to constituents: Tell your senator to kill a gas tax hike.

That’s exactly what senators did last week, voting to spend $400 million out of the state’s general fund budget on road repairs instead of increasing the gas tax.

“AFP and our allies gave a ‘bull horn’ to hard-working taxpayers,” said Dave Schwartz, head of the group’s S.C. chapter.

But the barrage of calls and mail angered many state senators. They say AFP misrepresented the gas tax debate. Senators also complain that AFP is an out-of-state group that gets “dark money” from unknown donors, and is tied to the billionaire Koch brothers.

While a gas tax hike appears dead, Americans for Prosperity and its allies are not yet claiming victory.

AFP and its allies say they want the Transportation Department to become a true cabinet agency, with the governor appointing its director instead of appointing commissioners who hire a director. In addition, they worry that the S.C. House could change the Senate plan, reviving a gas tax increase.

AFP’s message

DeLorey said that when she made calls to other S.C. residents, she told them how much the Transportation Department’s budget had grown since the end of the Great Recession and that legislators have an added $1.2 billion to spend this year without a tax hike.

DeLorey said she would ask those she called if they would contact their representatives. Often, the constituents were anxious to call their lawmakers, she said.

The grassroots effort by Americans for Prosperity was widespread. Schwartz said efforts this year included:

▪ About 30,000 calls in S.C. Senate districts by AFP volunteers

▪ Tens of thousands of robocalls, automated calls that play a recorded message

▪ More than 5,000 emails sent to legislators by constituents

Last year, the group also sent out thousands of postcards, Schwartz said. Additionally, the group has hosted four gas giveaways around the state. There, AFP would pay 45 cents for every gallon of gas purchased, representing the current federal and state gas taxes and a proposed 10-cent hike, Schwartz said.

But senators – including three who voted to boot the idea of a gas tax hike – say some of the information that AFP pushed was dishonest.

AFP’s message “at best was deceptive, at worst was downright untrue,” said state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.

Massey said AFP advocates would pick and choose information to make their point. For example, AFP did not mention proposed tax relief included in the gas tax proposal, he said.

“They led people to believe it was just a tax increase,” he said. “It was a very clever, yet deceptive campaign.”

State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, agreed. “They were just giving them part of the story.”

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, also faulted AFP for not disclosing the proposed income tax cut.

“A debate is healthy,” Grooms said. “I really want to hear from my constituents. But what’s not healthy is when people (are) being told an absolute lie.”

Many senators cited one AFP call in particular – discussing a proposed 72 percent gas take hike, or 12 cents a gallon – as disingenuous, saying it sounded like a 72-cent increase.

AFP’s Schwartz said the group had no reason to be untruthful.

“They’ll put lipstick on a pig,” he said of legislators. “But, at the end of the day, it’s a gas tax hike.”

Out-of-state, dark money

Senators also criticize AFP for having ties to billionaire brothers Charles Koch and David Koch.

The Koch brothers, whose billion-dollar industries range from paper products to refineries to transportation, founded AFP. Americans for Prosperity S.C. is a state chapter of the national organization. The S.C. chapter is an issue-based group that does not have to disclose its donors.

“We can’t let some out-of-state special-interest group come into South Carolina and dictate how we do business,” Shealy said.

Grooms agreed.

“When one group is funded by a couple of billionaires, it limits the ability of having free and open speech,” Grooms said. “The message then becomes one-sided.”

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said AFP is using out-of-state, dark money to push the Senate further to the right.

Senators did not get phone calls from constituents genuinely concerned about gas tax hikes, Hutto said. Instead, AFP found people who could be persuaded, he said. “They spent all this money – we don’t know how much.”

As a private organization, AFP is not under any obligation to disclose its donors, said Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council think tank, which advocates smaller government and lower taxes and allied with AFP to fight the gas tax hike.

“Transparency is for government. Privacy is for citizens,” Landess said, adding, “People who support these organizations have a right to be protected from intimidation by the government.”

Schwartz agrees, saying forcing groups to disclose donors would show lawmakers “want to intimidate private citizens who want nothing more than freedom.”

All of AFP’s S.C. staff – four full-time staffers and four part-timers – live in South Carolina, Schwartz said, in response to criticism that AFP is an out-of-state group. He also said AFP has hundreds of S.C. donors and thousands of supporters.

Under S.C. law, AFP must report any payments it makes to a lobbyist. Last year, the organization paid lobbyist Vanessa Anderson $5,804.

Americans for Prosperity S.C. does not have a political action committee that makes contributions to candidates, Schwartz said.

“Are we looking to endorse or to advocate for or against a candidate or an elected official? No,” he said.

However, the fact that 2016 is an election year provides leverage on lawmakers, Schwartz said.

Coalition of anti-gas tax groups

Sen. Massey says Americans for Prosperity never wanted to fix the state’s multi-billion-dollar problem of roads needing repair.

They “wanted to identify problems, tell people how bad their elected officials are and raise money off of that,” Massey said.

Instead of AFP, the credit for defeating a gas tax hike should be given to state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who filibustered last year and this year opposing the increase, Massey said.

Davis said a coalition of groups articulated the “reform first” message, which he pushed. Those groups included AFP, the tea party-related Campaign for Liberty, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Policy Council, he said.

Schwartz gave credit to the Policy Council for producing the data that AFP used to inform its members. In addition, the anti-growth Coastal Conservation League advocated for abolishing the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and giving its financing abilities to the Transportation Department.

“Citizens are working together across the philosophical aisle to change the way our state is governed and to restore power over government to citizens,” Landess said.

“The outcomes we were looking for were similar enough that we felt it would be productive to at least communicate with each other about it,” said Dana Beach of the Conservation League, who credits AFP with effectively mobilizing a constituency.

But going forward, the two groups could disagree.

“It appears the Koch interest is definitely not aligned with some of our fundamental interests in terms of renewable energy and alternative modes of transportation,” Beach said.

“We have a long way to go before we can say: ‘This year, they didn’t raise our taxes,’ ” Landess said.

Schwartz said the Senate removing the gas tax from its road repair plan is a win for grassroots activists.

“They’re the only reason that this conversation is happening, Schwartz said.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

How AFP helped kill the gas tax hike

The Americans for Prosperity S.C. chapter tapped into technology, launched social media campaigns and and held gas-giveaway events to oppose an increase to the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax.

30,000 calls made in S.C. Senate districts since January by dozens of Americans for Prosperity S.C. volunteers, patching citizens directly through to their lawmakers to support AFP’s agenda

Tens of thousands of robocalls made since January to pressure state senators to oppose a gas tax hike

5,000+ emails to legislators by constituents since January, telling them to support AFP’s agenda

Thousands of postcards sent in February and March of 2015

Four gas giveaways held in Columbia, Greenville, Lexington and Summerville. AFP paid 45 cents a gallon for the first 1,000 to 2,000 gallons sold, representing current state and federal gas taxes and the proposed 10-cent-a-gallon hike

SOURCE: Americans for Prosperity