Cindi Ross Scoppe

Do you expect legislators to buy you dinner? They think you do

Among the many groups honored each year by legislators are Miss South Carolina contestants. A proposed House Ethics Committee opinion says individuals and groups who are honored by the Legislature expect their local legislators to pick up their travel costs and take them to lunch.
Among the many groups honored each year by legislators are Miss South Carolina contestants. A proposed House Ethics Committee opinion says individuals and groups who are honored by the Legislature expect their local legislators to pick up their travel costs and take them to lunch.

WHEN I FIRST moved to Columbia, I spent several Saturday afternoons each fall in the Upstate, keeping stats and doing post-game interviews to help my soon-to-be-husband cover Clemson home football games for the Associated Press.

Our seats were on the 50-yard-line, in air-conditioned comfort, and the sports information staff put out a spread of deli sandwich fixings and the most amazing blondies I have ever encountered.

The Associated Press allowed its sportswriters to accept the meals because they had no reasonable alternative during the six to eight hours they were chained to the press box, and I wasn’t actually a sports writer and so really didn’t have a potential for a conflict. Still, I was always uncomfortable with the meal arrangement. Not uncomfortable enough to pass on those blondies, mind you, but uncomfortable.

You see, reporters don’t accept free meals. Or gifts. Or favors of any sort from people they aren’t completely certain would be their friends even if they weren’t reporters. Unlike most of the business world, business hospitality is not expected, encouraged or even accepted. To the contrary, except when it cannot be reasonably avoided, it is frowned upon and even prohibited.

I’ve always thought this was a very smart way to do things, a way that the rest of the world would be better off adopting: Pay your own way, so there’s no question about obligations or influence or expectations of reciprocity in some other form.

I realize this is an unusual way of looking at what many consider normal business hospitality. Indeed, my very honest and conscientious friends outside the world of journalism routinely engage in interactions that blur the line between business and social in ways I was taught in journalism school to always, always avoid.

But if I’m an outlier in my belief that there should be no exchange of things of value, our legislators are outliers on the opposite end of the spectrum.

I’m not talking about what legislators accept from others. In response to Operation Lost Trust, we managed to pass a very smart ethics law that barred them from accepting even so much as a cup of coffee from a lobbyist, set severe restrictions on what they can accept from people who hire lobbyists and required them to report any hospitality or other gifts they believe were given because of their positions.

No, I’m talking about what legislators believe people expect them to give: flags that flew over the State House, meals and travel expenses for groups visiting the State House, neighborhood watch signs, thank-you dinners for constituents. Seriously.

State law says campaign funds may be spent only on costs associated with running for or holding office, so whether expenses are allowed depends on what the requirements are for holding office. And in an effort to pull together and clarify years worth of opinions on the law before the State Ethics Commission starts reviewing legislators’ compliance next year, the House Ethics Committee will consider an advisory opinion on Thursday that says it’s perfectly acceptable to spend campaign money on all of those items because, essentially, that’s what voters expect.

As the opinion explains, a legislator can use campaign funds to pay for “travel expenses incurred and a meal also held for (a) person, group, or team as a direct result of the person, group, or team being recognized by the House of Representatives, as these expenses are an integral part of a Member’s official service.”

And, legislators can spend campaign funds to frame and present resolutions or purchase flags that flew over the State House for constituents because “it could be seen as a service generally expected of a Member as well as an opportunity incidental and unique to membership in the House.”

Also “generally expected of a Member” and thus allowable for purchase with campaign funds are handicap parking signs for fire departments and “other signs that benefit the community, such as neighborhood watch signs.”

And my favorite: Legislators can use campaign funds “to pay for a dinner held to thank constituents for support during one’s membership.” Because, well, I don’t know. Maybe because the law doesn’t allow them to slip voters an envelope of cash before the election?

I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time believing that the good people of South Carolina expect their legislators to buy them lunch and dinner and flags and signs. I’m more than a little offended that legislators have such a low opinion of us that they think they must buy our votes — when legislators speak of what they are “expected” to do, what they mean is what they are expected to do in order for us to re-elect them — and that our votes are so cheaply bought.

What I expect of my legislators, what I think most of us expect of our legislators, is that they work in good faith to make South Carolina a better place — not that they shower us with trinkets that it would be illegal for them to accept from the people who are trying to win their votes.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached

at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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