Lawmakers should limit financial impact of service

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Lawmakers should limit financial impact of service

A shorter legislative sessoin would be a good place to start.
Published Tuesday, January 29, 2013   |  775 Words  |  

Money is the mother's milk of politics, and much of it is tied to special-interest groups.

That fiscal reality apparently has hit state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, who vowed in 2008 not to take money from political action committees. But that's no longer the case.

More than half the money Davis raised between October and December -- $6,300 of $11,875 -- came from PACs.

Davis, who used some of the money to pay down debt for his 2008 campaign, which includes a personal loan, indicated he was surprised at the cost of being responsive to his constituents, as well as spending six months in Columbia away from his law practice. He called it "eye-opening."

Quite frankly, the former chief of staff to Gov. Mark Sanford has been involved in electoral politics long enough that he ought to have known better, and his reasons for vowing to say "no" to PAC money still look good to us.

"In my opinion, too many legislators in Columbia make decisions based on what lobbyists tell them -- or worse -- because of the special-interest money they have taken," Davis said in 2009. "I don't take PAC special interest money and am fully able to focus on doing what works for us in Beaufort County."

Davis now says he makes it clear to PACs and other donors that they're not purchasing influence. He might be able to hold firm, but his and other's protestations that they are not influenced by such political giving don't ring true to the average person. Why would these entities donate money if not to gain some influence? It can't all be about rewarding past actions.

Donations might not result in a quid pro quo on a specific vote, but for many donors, donations do result in access to lawmakers.

Republican political consultant Luke Byars put it this way: "If you are not contributing and you're not taking part in the process, and you come knocking on the door in January? Yeah, get in line. It doesn't necessarily mean you are going to sell a representative on your issue, but at least you have a chance to make your case."

Davis is right about one thing: The legislative session is too long, and the financial costs for those who are trying to serve in the legislature and earn a living are too high.

A shorter session would reduce that impact and focus lawmakers' efforts. As many of us know, there's nothing like a deadline to get people moving. And who isn't familiar with this adage: Work fills the available time.

A bill moving in the House would cut two months from the session. The proposed constitutional amendment would move the official start date from January to February. The session would end in early May instead of June. January would be reserved for committee meetings.

The bill's main sponsor, House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, said, "It seems to me we get things done based on a deadline. We manage our time based on deadlines we impose."

An opponent to the bill argued that ending the legislative session earlier would disrupt the budgeting process. State budget advisers update their revenue projections in May for the next fiscal year -- after the House has passed its budget plan, but usually in time for senators to use in their budgeting.

This shouldn't be an insurmountable issue. Start the session in early March and end it in June if revenue projections are a problem. There ought to be a way to address it.

Another effort that deserves support would redefine "committees" that participate in the electoral process. A 2010 federal court ruling threw out the state's definition of "committee" under its campaign finance law, stating it was overly broad. Removing committees from oversight allows South Carolina political groups and parties to keep secret who their members are and allows them to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to try to influence elections.

Money given directly to candidates still must be reported and the contributions are subject to limits.

Attempts to rectify this failed in 2011 and 2012. We should see it as part of promised ethics law reforms this session.

Lawmakers will have to balance freedom of speech issues with disclosure that helps voters make an informed decision. But when someone spends a lot of money to unseat or defeat a candidate for office, voters ought to be able to find out who is behind the effort and why.