The state's public colleges and universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on lobbyists to influence legislators to send more money and pass laws that are favorable to their respective schools.

But last year, the General Assembly slashed about 25 percent from the budgets of the state's higher education institutions, raising questions about the wisdom of using tax dollars to pay lobbyists to ask for more tax dollars.

Many state agencies, not just higher education institutions, hire lobbyists.

But the practice at the state's colleges and universities raised concerns recently when the College of Charleston created a second lobbyist position and hired the former chairman of its board of trustees to fill it.

Higher education leaders defend the practice, saying there's an even greater need for such liaisons in tough economic times. The lobbyists educate legislators on what the schools are doing; help them shape laws; answer questions for their constituents; and deal with other state regulatory agencies based in Columbia. Many also raise money for the schools outside of the Legislature.

Rep. Jim Merrill, a Daniel Island Republican and perhaps the Legislature's most outspoken critic of state agencies hiring lobbyists, said, "It's just so contradictory that you would try to limit the size and scope of government and then allocate money for agencies who use those taxpayer dollars and ask for more taxpayer dollars. It's kind of indicative of the vicious cycle that we create in government."

Steve Osborne, executive vice president for business affairs at the College of Charleston, said the college hired former board chairman Bobby Marlowe after a thorough process because he was the best applicant for the job.

The lobbyists "are like another type of fundraiser," Osborne said. For instance, lobbying brought in $545,000 in state money about four years ago to launch a hospitality and tourism management program. The program's funding was cut last year, but its foundation was set so the college could continue the program without a separate pot of money from the state.

And lobbyists are more important, not less, in tough economic times, he said. "In times of competing for scarce resources, it intensifies the need."

The college's lobbyists also will help the school compete for federal stimulus money, he said. The college is trying to bring in money from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Ashley Landess, president of The South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank in Columbia pushing for more transparency in government, said neither state nor federal taxpayers' money should be used to pay for lobbyists. "It's a conflict of interest against the people," she said. "As a taxpayer, I might be paying a lobbyist to fight for something I don't agree with."

Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists and co-founder of Fairfax, Va.-based Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, said many people don't understand the purpose of lobbying. "It is about educating and informing legislators," he said.

Given the number of bills introduced, it is impossible for legislators to become experts on every one, Wenhold said. In South Carolina, roughly 2,000 bills and resolutions have been introduced in the first year of this two-year session and more are expected to be filed when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Gov. Mark Sanford sees taxpayer-funded lobbyists as a waste. The governor bans his Cabinet agencies from hiring lobbyists, Sanford's communications director Ben Fox said.

Landess called the argument that legislators need lobbyists to educate them absurd. "Their job is to know what bills they're voting on," she said.

But Sen. Paul Campbell, a Goose Creek Republican, said he sees lobbyists as a valuable part of the political process. While their perspectives are biased, Campbell said, the lobbyists provide in-depth information that legislators wouldn't get otherwise. It would not be cost-effective for 170 legislators to try independently to gather information that is provided by lobbyists.

Ray Greenberg, president of the Medical University of South Carolina, said the school and the hospital each need a lobbyist because MUSC must have a presence in Columbia. The lobbyists not only try to bring in more state money, he said, but they work with lawmakers to help shape state laws. For instance, he said, about three years ago, lobbyists worked with lawmakers to pass tort reform legislation, which will "ensure we don't lose practitioners to other states because of malpractice costs."

Ted Moore, the University of South Carolina's vice president for finance and planning, said the university is a large and complex institution. USC's lobbyists know about all of the different aspects of the school, including teaching and research programs, and they can communicate those aspects to legislators and solve problems when necessary.

Clemson University President Jim Barker said, "We need to have people who are knowledgeable about both the university and the state regulatory and legislative processes. The governmental affairs staff plays a critical role as liaisons between the university and the many state and federal agencies that impact Clemson University."

Barker also said lobbyists "are state employees performing a valuable service for the university that goes well beyond the state appropriation bill."