A hat tip to The State in South Carolina

The paper offers a solid opening salvo in a new series, "SC State House for Sale"

COLUMBIA, SC — The State newspaper, South Carolina’s capital city daily in Columbia, gave uncharacteristically prominent play Sunday to the influence that ex-lawmakers and other public officials have as they lobby their former colleagues at the State House.

“At least 66 former lawmakers, legislative staffers and state regulators have registered to lobby the Legislature in the past two years, according to research by The State newspaper,” reporter Sammy Fretwell wrote. He added, “Lobbying by ex-legislators is legal in South Carolina, and former legislators are hot lobbyists because of the connections they developed while in office.”

The May 19 front-page piece uses a garbage bill pending in the state Senate in the waning days of the current session as a way to explore, as the headline asks, “Are legislators-turned-lobbyists too powerful in South Carolina?” It is the first in a series about ethics in state government that the The State is calling, “SC State House for Sale.” (The series comes as lawmakers in the General Assembly are currently debating a comprehensive proposal to update the state’s ethics laws for the first time in 22 years.)

After the front-page jump, this first installment took up two full inside pages of the print edition with no advertisements, including multiple sidebars that covered campaign donations from “garbage giants,” details of the garbage bill, and the lobbying roster for both sides of the bill. An online extra included a video interview of a government watchdog, John Crangle, who runs the state chapter of Common Cause, and who offered some historical context about lobbying in South Carolina.

The Palmetto State has a one-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can register as lobbyists. Legislators are debating whether to increase that to eight years, which would make it the toughest restriction of its kind in the nation. Fretwell smartly noted in his piece how lawmakers have found a way to get around the current one-year ban, however. “During their one-year wait to register as lobbyists, the former lawmakers often are ‘consultants,’ helping with legislative strategy, advising lobbyists and even visiting the State House to provide support to lobbyists,” he wrote. He also quoted legislators and government watchdogs like Crangle who are critical of the current one-year restriction because they say it’s too short. And he uncovered this revealing comment from a current state Senator.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said only having a one-year waiting period encourages people to run for the Legislature and angle for a lobbying job while in office. The Charleston Republican said he has no first-hand knowledge of that happening but better safeguards are needed.

“You need to have enough separation so the office doesn’t merely become a stepping stone to realize your ultimate goal of becoming a lobbyist,” he said.

Fretwell is the paper’s environmental reporter and not on the day-to-day State House beat. (We highlighted some of his previous stand-out environmental coverage in March.) Much of his Sunday piece about lobbying is, as mentioned above, framed around a pending legislative showdown pitting out-of-state garbage interests against local municipalities to “determine who controls the state’s garbage service: local governments or national trash corporations, such as Waste Management and Republic Services.” Wrote Fretwell:

The proposal, which the trash companies back, would limit a county’s control over local garbage service. County laws that now require local trash to be dumped in local landfills would be nullified.

Garbage companies say they want a chance to compete for South Carolina’s estimated $500 million-a-year trash market.

But local governments say the bill would result in a takeover of the state’s garbage market by private companies, leading, they predict, to higher rates for consumers and the flow of more out-of-state garbage into South Carolina, a state with a history of taking the nation’s refuse.

The piece doesn’t wade too deeply into the best policy arguments for or against the bill—readers unfortunately don’t get a good sense of, for example, why they should care about who controls the garbage market, what that market looks like in other states, or how big a deal it might be if out-of-state trash comes into South Carolina—but rather sticks to the accountability and ethical aspects of the ex-lawmakers who are lobbying on both sides of the pending legislation.

Tommy Moore, once a top South Carolina Senator who was the state Democratic Party’s 2006 nominee for governor, is now lobbying for Big Garbage. Lobbying alongside him is Dan Cooper, an ex-lawmaker who just two years ago chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Lobbying against their bill on behalf of municipalities is Harry Cato, an ex-legislator who was the (Republican) House Speaker Pro Tem until 2010, a high leadership post.

“Moore, an Aiken County Democrat, and Cooper, an Anderson County Republican, are among 15 lobbyists representing the waste industry in Columbia this year,” Fretwell wrote. “About a third of those lobbyists are ex-legislators.”

He also broke down the spending on both sides.

In the four years ending in 2012, Waste Management and Republic spent about $1.5 million lobbying the Legislature, according to state Ethics Commission data analyzed by The State newspaper.

The primary opponents on the waste bill-the Association of Counties, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina and the Horry County Solid Waste Authority-have spent about $680,000 lobbying during the same four-year period, according to state Ethics Commission records.

The amount of space and resources devoted to the opening salvo of “SC State House for Sale” is a refreshing turn for readers of The State. Several rounds of newsroom layoffs in recent years have left the paper lacking in much of the investigative news, narrative explanatory coverage, and contextual reporting about state government for which it was known in decades past. But the May 19 edition at least had the McClatchy-owned newspaper living up to the registered trademark of its parent company, “Truth to Power.” Here’s hoping the rest of the paper’s series is of a similar caliber.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.