I GOT A hand-written note from “a SC Taxpayer” who was upset that Sen. Kevin Johnson went to work for the state Revenue Department in June.
“I thought you couldn’t hold two state jobs,” he writes. “It’s just not right I don’t think for him to be on the tax dept. payroll. That’s just wrong.”
The state constitution does prohibit “dual office holding,” but that mostly means multiple elected or appointed offices. For all but a small and, for me, difficult-to-define handful of jobs, nothing prohibits a legislator from working for a state agency. Or a public school. Or college or university. Or local government.
At least as important (I’d say more), nothing prevents a legislator from working for a business — even a business that is constantly lobbying the Legislature. Nothing prevents a legislator from working directly for a lobbying organization — and we have one and until recently had two House members who do that.
And as we’ve seen in the Quinn corruption investigation, when legislators can have second jobs, they can work for political consultants whose clients need favors from the legislators, which creates landmines even for legislators determined to represent the public’s interests instead of their own personal interests.
Of course we allow this in part because legislators write the laws. But there’s also a legitimate reason for it, which goes back to the beginning of our state: the belief that legislators should be part-time officials who hold down regular jobs. Many don’t, because they’re retired, but many do.
When you say legislators should have jobs, it’s hard to draw a line and say they should have these sorts of jobs and not those.
Is it fair to bar them from working for state government and not local government? Does it make sense to bar them from working for government, when they can work for SCANA or the S.C. Medical Association or as a criminal defense attorney — all of which would present just as much of a conflict between the interests of the public and their own professional interests?
There are ways to reduce the conflicts, and legislators will tell you they have done this. But they haven’t; not really.
I’m not saying lines can’t be drawn in logical places, but when you add that difficulty to the fact that legislators would have to draw the lines — which would hurt either themselves or at least their friends or allies — it’s easier to understand why that hasn’t happened.
Sen. Johnson, by the way, went to work on June 19 as a part-time “telecollections officer” at the Revenue Department, where he worked before he was elected to the House in 2011. His job is to collect unpaid S.C. taxes from out-of-state businesses; he is paid $25 per hour to work 22.5 hours a week, or a little less than $30,000 a year.
We often see efforts to change “legislator” to a full-time position, just like the governor and attorney general and members of Congress. But beyond the philosophical argument about citizen-legislators, that would require legislators to vote themselves a significant pay raise, and they’re afraid voters would never forgive this. They make $10,400 per year plus expense reimbursements that bring the total to around $20,000 — although they do get state health insurance, and those who were elected before 2012 are part of an obscenely generous pension system.
There are other, less-radical ways to reduce the conflicts, and lawmakers will tell you they have done this. But they haven’t; not really.
What they have done is require themselves to sit out the vote on matters that would benefit them; that’s called recusal. When it comes to government, that’s absolute: Someone who works for the Transportation Department can’t vote on the Transportation Department’s budget or, in some cases, legislation that affects the agency.
They don’t have to refrain from the debate that shapes the bill or, more important still, the procedural motions that often determine its fate.
The line is blurrier for private-sector conflicts: A SCANA employee couldn’t vote on a bill that affects SCANA or, say, all electric utilities. But he could vote on bills that affect all corporations — just like a doctor could vote on bills that affect all doctors. Generally, the more people affected by a bill, the less likely it is that a legislator has to skip the vote.
That’s not the problem with the recusal requirement. The problem is that many interpret the law as requiring only that legislators refrain from voting. They don’t have to refrain from the debate that shapes the bill or, more importantly, the procedural motions that often determine its fate. And certainly they aren’t barred from discussing the bill with other legislators. Those informal conversations are where minds are changed, and in fact a lot of legislators would give much greater credence to the SCANA employee than non-SCANA employees, who don’t understand the legislation as well. (For the record, I’m not aware of any legislators who work for SCANA.)
If legislators really wanted to reduce the conflicts of interest that are inherent in a part-time Legislature, they would bar legislators from participating in any way, formally or informally, in any legislation that would help or hurt themselves or their employers. As a bonus, such a law also would create a brighter line between legal and illegal for any legislators who go to work for political consultants.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.