The five-star perks of legislative power
In 2008, the S.C. House of Representatives stopped paying for conference fees and related expenses for its members because of the budget woes created by the recession. Well, not quite.
According to a statement from Greg Foster, spokesman for House Speaker Bobby Harrell, exceptions to the rule can be made by the House leadership.
Or to put it another way, House leaders can choose not to follow the rules when it suits them. As in the $10,000 payments for hotel and related expenses for legislators attending the National Speakers Conference in Charleston in 2011.
Mr. Foster explained, “This was a non-typical expense paid by the House for a non-typical conference.”
Altogether, 12 S.C. House members attended the conference at Charleston Place, hosted by Rep. Harrell, R-Charleston, for House speakers and staff from across the nation.
Post and Courier reporter Stephen Largen uncovered details of state expenses for the conference through a Freedom of Information Act request on S.C. legislative spending for last fiscal year.
Although the tab for the three-day event was apparently picked up by the taxpayers, Rep. Harrell and Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, told our reporter they had expected the National Speakers Conference to pay. Rep. Limehouse says he has since reimbursed the state.
Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston, however, said he knew all along the state was going to pay the cost of his hotel room. Rep. Mack’s hotel bill was around $560; Rep. Limehouse’s was $1,100; and Speaker Harrell’s $1,500.
Mr. Harrell cited the benefits of the conference to the local economy. Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the estimated impact was “in the millions,” though she was unable to specificy exactly how much..
Ms. Hill said the convention “further branded Charleston as a prime meeting destination.” Mr. Harrell described it as a “very positive image event for South Carolina.”
Even if those ancillary benefits are unquestionable, though not easily quantifiable, there are still questions about some of the figures cited in our report.
Five S.C. legislators declared gifts totalling $15,650 in value from the conference — some of which were listed as lodging. Considering that the state’s taxpayers apparently paid the hotel bills for our state legislators, that discrepancy needs to be clarified.
And despite the fact that the “gifts” were received during an event in which legislators were representing the state in their official capacity, state law doesn’t limit the amount or require full details of exactly what was given. That’s a loophole that ought to be closed as part of the growing list of items that need legislative attention in the pending package on ethics reform.
Otherwise it fuels the perception, cited by John Crangle of S.C. Common Cause, that elected officials are “living off politics.”
Even as the taxpayers foot the bill.