State lawmaker's push for USCB funding draws scrutiny

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State lawmaker's push for USCB funding draws scrutiny

By GINA SMITH
gsmith@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, February 2, 2013   |  736 Words  |  

Area lawmakers, including Rep. Bill Bowers, D-Hampton, and University of South Carolina leaders are preparing for a Statehouse effort to get more money for the university's Beaufort branch.

Bowers has multiple reasons to fight for it. The longtime Lowcountry representative works at the college -- which doesn't sit well with some groups working to increase accountability among state lawmakers.

"It's one of the problems this state has because we have a part-time, amateur legislature," said John Crangle, director of the watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina.

"As long as you have part-time legislators, they're going to need jobs. And that creates an opportunity for legislators to be employed, to get contracts, to have some kind of financial benefit from employers who have business with the state."

Bowers, a House member since 1997, represents nearly all of Jasper County and parts of northern Beaufort County around Yemassee. He earns $66,950 for his full-time work as a business professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, according to a state salary database and the university. He has worked there since last spring and worked at USC Salkehatchie before that.

Additionally, he earns $10,400 annually for his work as a lawmaker.

Bowers' advocacy would seem to run counter to state law that reads, "No public official, public member, or public employee may make, participate in making, or in any way attempt to use his office, membership, or employment to influence a governmental decision in which he, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated has an economic interest."

Lawmakers or other public officials cannot vote on issues that will affect their wallets. They must declare potential conflicts of interest and not participate in discussion and votes on the issue, according to state law.

Bowers took to the House floor last spring, urging fellow lawmakers to give more money to USCB because it has the lowest per-student funding of any of South Carolina's teaching-focused public universities.

That effort failed but raised awareness of the inequity. This year, USC president Harris Pastides and other university leaders are asking for $8.3 million in next year's state budget for the USC system, including $2.2 million for USCB, where student enrollment has more than doubled in the past decade.

Cathy Hazelwood, an attorney with the S.C. Ethics Commission, said public officials voting on issues that affect their employers only run afoul of the law if it results in a pay raise, bonus or other direct financial benefit.

Although many lawmakers and locally elected officials recuse themselves from any discussion and any vote that affects their employers, it is not required.

"There must be a direct economic interest by the elected official in order for a recusal to be required," Hazelwood said.

Bowers, a certified public accountant who has a Ph.D. and 30 years of teaching experience, said his advocacy is appropriate.

"I am not advocating for me personally. I am advocating for the people of my district and the students," Bowers said. "My chosen profession is education, and it's appropriate for me to participate as a lawmaker and as an educator who cares about the issue."

USCB vice chancellor Lynn McGee said Bowers was hired because of his qualifications, including an accounting degree and a specialty in taxation -- not because he's a lawmaker.

Bowers said it is difficult to work six months each year at the Statehouse in Columbia and teach classes back home.

The four courses he teaches, considered a full-time course load in the academic world, are held on Fridays and Saturdays -- days the legislature does not meet -- and an online course that he can teach when not at the Statehouse.

"It's a lot of early mornings and late nights," Bowers said, adding that it's good to have a "citizen legislature" composed of working people like himself who understand business.

Follow reporter Gina Smith at www.twitter.com/GinaNSmith.

Related content:

USCB Chancellor urges lawmakers to fix funding inequity, Jan. 30, 2013