COLUMBIA — State law includes a little-known exemption in lobbying rules for a controversial national group that creates bills pushed at the Statehouse.
Lobbyists, paid to represent the legislative interests of companies and special interest groups, are normally barred under state law from providing lodging, food or other benefits to a lawmaker or public official unless they are provided at a function to which all state lawmakers or members of a legislative committee are invited.
But those rules haven’t applied at American Legislative Exchange Council meetings since 2003, when a legislative conference committee added the exemption to a bill that was later signed by former Gov. Mark Sanford.
The exemption allows lobbyists to meet with a select group of S.C. lawmakers at ALEC conventions and conferences. Lawmakers pay $100 each for a two-year membership.
“A company doesn’t have to adhere to the group invitation there — they can cherry-pick,” said S.C. Ethics Commission attorney Cathy Hazelwood. “Normally they (lobbyists and their principals) have to avoid the one-on-one.”
A similar provision in state lobbying law grants the same exemption for any national and regional conventions and conferences that lawmakers pay annual dues to attend, but ALEC is the only group with a specific exemption.
ALEC is a Washington-based, mostly corporate-funded nonprofit that pairs lawmakers across the country with business interests.
Since 1973, they have worked together in private — often at resort-hosted retreats — to craft proposed laws addressing everything from health care to education to gun laws and even voting rights.
Those proposed laws, including voter ID and so-called “stand your ground” measures, have been introduced by ALEC members in South Carolina and statehouses across the country.
ALEC has some Democratic members, including a few in South Carolina, but its bills most often line up with the GOP agenda.
Supporters say the group provides useful assistance in weighing the impact of legislation on corporations and job creators, assistance not unlike the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But more often, critics say the group has taken on an increasingly conservative tilt.
Some say ALEC provides corporations a way to influence lawmakers without it being reported to state ethics watchdogs.
The group has faced a crush of recent controversy related to its push for “stand your ground” and voter ID measures.
National political watchdog group Common Cause has filed an IRS complaint accusing ALEC of violating its tax-exempt status by lobbying lawmakers.
ALEC’s exemption in South Carolina lobbying law, enacted long before the group became nationally controversial, was rediscovered and publicized this week by state Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Winnsboro.
After the publication of a Post and Courier report on ALEC’s influence in South Carolina Monday, Brown called on his colleagues to leave the organization.
Rep. Ted Vick, a Chesterfield Democrat and candidate for South Carolina’s new 7th Congressional District seat, promptly did so.
On Thursday, Brown filed a bill that would strike the general conference and ALEC-specific exemptions in state lobbying law, saying they are unethical loopholes.
The effort was symbolic as the bill stood no chance of passing before the legislative crossover deadline that arrived later in the day.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter at @stephenlargen