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Editorial: SC legislators shouldn't get blank checks for office space back home

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The SC Legislature requires counties to provide office space and staff for legislative delegations. But some legislators receive cash payments instead.

There shouldn’t have been any need for legislators from each S.C. county to act as “delegations” after the General Assembly passed the 1975 Home Rule Act, turning control of county governments over to locally elected councils.

But powerful legislators never really bought the idea of letting anybody else call the shots in their home counties. So although the resident senator no longer wrote the county budget, the Legislature didn’t actually give the newly empowered county councils the power to appoint the county election commissions or oversee county recreation commissions or hundreds of other special little governments — called special purpose districts — that legislators in each county had created as they saw fit to meet the needs back home.

And even though the state constitution strictly prohibits it, legislators kept passing local laws, which apply only to their county and are approved or rejected only by the legislators who represent that county.

And of course legislators needed to maintain county delegation offices back home. So as part of the 1975 law, they required county councils to “provide office space and appropriations for the operation of the county legislative delegation office including compensation for staff personnel and necessary office supplies and equipment.” The legislative delegation would decide how many people to hire, who to hire and, of course, how much money the counties have to spend.

When a few counties started balking, the Legislature added a proviso to the annual state budget that docks the funding those counties receive from the state by whatever amount local legislators decide, plus a 25 percent up-charge.

In most cases, the counties provide an office and staff, often housed in a county administration building. But according to The Nerve, the publication of the libertarian S.C. Policy Council, some legislators have decided they’d rather be equipped with cash.

In reviewing legislators’ annual statements of economic interest, The Nerve found that 19 legislators — representing Berkeley, Clarendon, Darlington, Dillon, Dorchester, Florence, Marion and Sumter counties — reported receiving payments last year totaling $114,408 for “delegation office” or “local” expenses. Five of them received payments from two counties, and in Marion County, the payments came from the towns of Marion and Mullins. Individual legislators apparently set their own charges; several reported payments around $10,000, with Marion Sen. Kent Williams reporting $26,620.

Rep. Phillip Lowe, who received $2,000 last year from Florence County, said he requested the money based on how much time a secretary at his business spends on legislative matters. He told the publication he thought every county should have a delegation office, but if that wasn’t possible, there should be a standard formula in determining county payments to lawmakers.

He’s right and wrong there. County governments shouldn’t be required to provide office space and employees for legislators, there is no reason legislators should determine how much the counties have to spend on them, and there’s certainly no reason counties should feel pressured to write checks to legislators who don’t choose to have a shared space.

But as long as the Legislature requires payments, we at least need a formula to calculate them. And we ought to require lawmakers who accept checks instead of office space to report how they’re spending the money. Perhaps everything is on the up and up, but these arrangements reek of the potential for abuse.

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