County Money Flows to State Lawmakers’ Wallets

May 12, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Cash in PocketEvery quarter, Sen. Paul Campbell says he receives a check from Berkeley County for about $1,600.

“It just shows up,” Campbell, R-Berkeley, told The Nervewhen contacted Friday. “It makes me feel good.”

And the checks likely will keep coming, given that lawmakers wrote the law requiring it.

Act 283 of 1975, better known as the Home Rule Act, established the current structure of self-government for counties and municipalities. But lawmakers back then didn’t exactly forfeit all control over local governments.

Tucked away at the end of Section 3 of Act 283 is a requirement that county councils “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.”

Under the law, the delegations get to dictate how much counties have to budget annually for the delegation offices, and also control hiring and firing of office staff.

State records show that at least six counties that didn’t provide delegation offices last year made substitute payments to lawmakers, such as Campbell, whose recently filed income-disclosure statement filed with the State Ethics Commission listed him as receiving $6,579 from Berkeley County and $341 from Dorchester County in 2013.

In recent years, lawmakers have gone even further than the 1975 law, giving them the authority through an annual state budget proviso to reduce state aid to counties by the unfunded amounts for local delegations, plus add in a 25 percent surcharge for “administrative costs,” as payment to the delegations.

That “hammer” is found in budget Proviso 110.4 in this fiscal year’s state budget and the proposed budget for fiscal 2015, which starts July 1. Meanwhile, the General Assembly in recent years has ignored another law requiring the state to fund local governments at 4.5 percent of state general fund revenues from the previous year, shortchanging the state Local Government Fund by tens of millions annually.

And The Nerve reported last week about a behind-the-scenes push by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, to double the amount of  “in-district” payments, funded through the state’s general fund, to all 170 lawmakers, to $24,000 from $12,000 yearly. If approved, the pay raise would cost S.C. taxpayers more than $2 million annually.

Leatherman at a recent Senate Finance Committee meeting said the proposed pay hike was needed because in-district payments haven’t been raised since 1995 and haven’t kept up with increases in gasoline prices over the years.

Campbell reported receiving a $12,000 in-district “allowance” from the state last year, in addition to his $10,400 base salary as a senator and $6,921 in total “in-lieu-of-district-office” payments from Berkeley and Dorchester counties, according to his income-disclosure report, known as a statement of economic interests, filed on March 27. He also received $70,976 last year as the Charleston County Aviation Authority’s executive director.

Campbell told The Nerve that the $12,000 he receives annually from the state and the lesser amounts he gets from Berkeley and Dorchester counties are for “different purposes.” The state payments, he said, cover his “travel and meeting people” in his district when the Legislature is out of session, and other in-district trips not covered by the standard Senate mileage reimbursement during legislative session weeks.

In contrast, he said the amounts he receives from Berkeley and Dorchester counties are for in-home office expenses that normally would be handled by county delegation offices.

State law does not require lawmakers to publicly disclose records supporting their in-home office expenses covered by their respective counties or expenditures paid with their state in-district payments. Campbell pointed out that he also is a member of the Charleston County legislative delegation, noting, “In Charleston County, they do that (provide a delegation office) for me, but in Berkeley County, it’s on me.”

The Nerve’s review of the most recently filed income-disclosure reports by lawmakers found that at least 14 legislators whose districts cover Berkeley, Darlington, Dorchester, Lee, Sumter or Williamsburg counties reported receiving county payments last year, typically labeled “in lieu of,” delegation or county “in-district” payments. Given that a number of lawmakers lump their various sources of legislative income together on their disclosure reports, it’s not clear from those forms exactly how many of them received county payments in 2013.

Among those who itemized those payments, Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, listed a total of $11,500 in “delegation/local expense” payments from Sumter County in 2013,  followed by Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, who reported receiving $10,000 as the Sumter County delegation chairman, according to their income-disclosure reports filed with the State Ethics Commission. Rep. Grady Brown, D-Lee, reported receiving a total of $7,250 from Lee and Sumter counties last year, according to his income-disclosure report.

The Sumter County delegation has seven House and Senate members. When asked Friday for a list of all county payments last year to those delegation members, Pam Craven, the county’s finance director, directed The Nerve to submit a request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

As for counties that provide office space and staff for legislative delegations, Richland County, which has 17 delegation members, this fiscal year budgeted $286,948 for the delegation office, an increase of $92,818, or about 48 percent, over last fiscal year, records show.

Democratic Rep. Joe Neal, the county delegation chairman, couldn’t provide specifics about the large increase when contacted Friday by The Nerve, adding, “I would be glad to look into it if you like.”

Neal said budget requests for the delegation office typically come from the delegation staff, though county spokeswoman Melinda Edwards in a written response Friday to The Nerve said the annual requests are made by the delegation.

Asked about the $92,818 increase for this fiscal year, Edwards gave the following three reasons:

  • Replacement of computers;
  • Addition of a new position for “Veterans Affairs claims representation.”James Brown, executive director of the Richland County delegation office, in 2010 told The Nerve that his position is “unique” compared to other county delegation directors because he also heads the county’s Veterans’ Affairs Office.
  • “Increase in professional service for consulting contract.” Edwards didn’t immediately respond Friday to follow-up questions from The Nerve seeking specifics about that expense.

In comparison to Richland County, Charleston County, which has 22 delegation members, has a total legislative budget of $195,544 for this fiscal year, while Greenville County, which also has 22 delegation members, budgeted $56,801 for its delegation.

Asked Friday about the differences between the Richland, Charleston and Greenville county delegation budgets, Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville and secretary of the Greenville County delegation, told The Nerve, “I know we’re a pretty frugal bunch.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.