COLUMBIA — The 2012 S.C. House and state Senate elections are brought to you by the trucking industry, car dealers and utility companies.
Those businesses are among the largest donors to legislative campaigns this year, according to The State newspaper’s review of more than 30,000 political contributions dating back to 2009 for Senate races, which are held every four years, and 2010 for House races, held every two years.
Among the top donors is the S.C. Trucking Association. It has donated more than $107,000 to 120 candidates thus far for the Nov. 6 election. The S.C. Automobile Dealers Association has given more than $94,000.
Utility companies – SCANA, Progress Energy, Duke Energy, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon – have combined to donate more than $360,000.
Law firms – traditional donors in local politics – have opened their wallets, too, including: $68,000 from the Columbia-based Nelson Mullins law firm; $60,500 from the Association for Justice, formerly the Trial Lawyers Association; $45,000 from the Columbia-based McNair Law Firm; and hundreds of thousands of dollars from hundreds of attorneys and smaller law firms spread throughout the state.
All together, donors – individuals and businesses – have contributed more than $12 million to candidates for the House and Senate who will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. Nine of the largest business donors alone – the Trucking Association, Automobile Dealers, SCANA, Progress Energy (now part of Duke Energy), Nelson Mullins, Friends of the Farm Bureau, S.C. Bankers Association, AT&T and TitleMax – have made more than 5 percent of those contributions.
“Money talks at the legislature,” said Democratic political consultant Tyler Jones, who also works with the House Democratic Caucus.
“They wouldn’t keep giving money if it didn’t work.”
Were you wearing your seat belt?
What do business donors want from the Statehouse? In some cases, it is hard to say.
For example, SCANA, the Cayce-based utility, has donated $79,000 through its various political action committees, according to state ethics reports.
“We don’t have anything we want to try and discuss,” SCANA spokeswoman Eric Boomhower said, adding the utility monitors legislation throughout the year and “responds to any kind of business that could have an impact on our business or our customers.”
Other groups, including the S.C. Trucking Association, are more outspoken.
“Fighting the personal-injury lawyers is hard,” said Rick Todd, the association’s executive director. “It’s a battle you can’t quit.”
Todd says his group wants to make it easier on trucking companies in the courtroom. He says personal-injury attorneys target trucking companies because of the high insurance coverage that they are federally required to have.
Specifically, if someone is injured in an accident involving a trucking company, an attorney for the trucking company cannot ask at trial whether the injured person was wearing a seat belt, as required by state law.
“It is the only violation of the motor-vehicle code not admissible in the court of law,” Todd said. “It can’t be used to consider if you may have been hurt less if you would have worn your seat belt.
“Lawyers are against it,” Todd added, because “they don’t to support anything that could reduce the value of their claim and make them work harder.”
To push the issue, the Trucking Association has become one of the most prolific donors in the state.
Records show it has given to more than 120 candidates – more than half of the 234 candidates on the November ballot for S.C. House and Senate seats. Todd says the association’s political action committee will “consider giving to pretty much any sitting legislator or anyone who seeks a contribution to run for office.”
But the Trucking Association’s agenda – and donations – puts it at odds with another big spender: lawyers.
The S.C. Association for Justice, a group of trial lawyers, has donated more than $60,000 to state House and Senate candidates. And it adamantly opposes allowing seat-belt use to be considered in accident suits.
Attorneys say allowing jurors to consider whether an injured person was wearing a seat belt in determining damages in accident cases would amount to “punishing innocent victims.”
“When an 18 wheeler runs into a car or a Prius or something, [wearing a] seat belt is not the issue,” said Matthew Richardson, president of the S.C. Association for Justice. “What we really need are for truck drivers to slow down and drive more carefully.”
Contribute or ‘get in line’
S.C. political consultants say the sometimes competing interests of big donors mean that contributing to legislative campaigns does not guarantee a donor will set the agenda at the State House.
But it does save a donor a spot at the front of the line when trying to get a lawmakers’ attention, an invaluable asset once the legislature convenes and the business of government consumes lawmakers’ calendars.
“If you are not contributing and you’re not taking part in the process, and you come knocking on the door in January? Yeah, get in line,” Republican political consultant Luke Byars said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to sell a representative on your issue, but at least you have a chance to make your case.”
‘Little more than pawns’
Some say the system of big-money donations gives big business influence at the State House at the expense of others, who don’t have money or a powerful organization to champion their cause.
Consider state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the Florence Republican who is chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. An analysis of Leatherman’s campaign contributions shows that more than 60 percent are from corporations or political action committees.
Some say that should change.
When lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they plan to consider an overhaul of the state ethics laws. John Crangle, director of the S.C. chapter of Common Cause, says lawmakers should consider limiting how much money corporations can give to campaigns.
“If lawmakers are getting 70, 80, 90 percent of their [campaign] money from political action committees and from corporations, they really are little more than pawns for the people that are giving them this kind of money,” Crangle said.