The Buzz

THE BUZZ: SC Senate leader wants to shine a light on ‘dark money’

S.C. State House
S.C. State House

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, wants to let the sun shine on “dark money.”

Dark money refers to donations given to organizations that do not have to reveal their donors or how much money they receive. The groups then use the money to push a political agenda or defeat candidates.

After years of delay, senators also are considering other ethics reform topics, including having independent investigators – not lawmakers – look into ethics complaints against legislators. Senators also must give final approval to a proposal that would require elected officials to disclose who pays them.

Leatherman, who faces opposition in June’s GOP primary, wants to eradicate dark money, too, saying it is attempting to hijack S.C. politics.

“We’re going to make those who get that money tell us where it came from,” the Florence Republican said Friday.

Dark-money-fueled groups already are having an impact on the state, critics say.

For example, during the Senate’s debate of a state gas tax hike, the S.C. branch of the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity group launched robo-calls into senators’ districts, opposing a tax hike. In response, unhappy senators criticized AFP for relying on dark money, noting its ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, whose business empire ranges from paper products to refineries to transportation.

Supporters say groups like AFP should not have to disclose where they get their money because they are private organizations.

“I’m not trying to stop the money coming in,” Leatherman said, noting the Supreme Court has said contributions fall under the First Amendment’s protections.

On Thursday, however, Senate leader Leatherman failed to win a vote to give his anti-dark money proposal a priority spot on the Senate’s calendar.

Many Republicans, who voted against making the bill a priority, did so because they were surprised by fellow Republican Leatherman’s move, said new Senate GOP leader Shane Massey.

“There is a significant majority of Republican senators who would like to debate that bill,” Massey said, R-Edgefield.

Massey added he opposes dark money, too.

“If you’re going to engage in the political process, if you’re going to try to influence the outcome of elections, you ought to disclose who is funding the effort.”

The bridge to nowhere

State Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson, took to the podium in the S.C. House Wednesday to oppose a House plan to restructure the Transportation Department.

The roads agency has been under fire during the legislative session as lawmakers have tried to decide how to pay to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Hill said his jaw dropped when a constituent told him what happened when DOT employees went to fix a load-restricted bridge in Oconee County.

“They tore the wrong bridge down,” Hill said on the floor. “They tore down a perfectly good bridge.”

Not true, Transportation Department officials told The Buzz. They say they did not make a mistake.

Hill now concedes that, telling The Buzz that he could have done a better job checking out the story more thoroughly.

“You live and learn.”

Buzz bites

▪  University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides plans to retire in the Charleston area, he told members of the Rotary Club of Charleston last week, according to Andy Brack’s Statehouse Report. “My goal before we retire is to win the SEC” championship in football, Pastides added. (The Buzz projects that will happen about 2020 – when Nick Saban is elected president.)

▪  Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, was the lead sponsor last week of a proposal to hang a portrait of Senate leader Leatherman in the Senate chamber. The Buzz was surprised. It was just a year ago that Peeler called for Leatherman to resign as president pro tempore, saying he held too many powerful positions in the Senate. “I’ve always had the utmost respect for Sen. Leatherman as a person and as a senator,” Peeler told The Buzz Friday.