CHARLESTON, S.C. — Taxpayers paid more than $10,000 for a dozen members of the South Carolina House to stay at a hotel in downtown Charleston during a five-day national conference last September that received no other state funding.
The Post and Courier of Charleston reported Monday that nine Republicans and three Democrats stayed at Charleston Place Hotel during the 2011 National Speakers Conference, held Sept. 7-11 at the hotel. The information came through an open-records request.
Legislators say the annual gathering for state House speakers and their staffers from across the country was a boon for the tourism-dependent city.
The dozen South Carolina legislators included House Speaker Bobby Harrell. The Charleston Republican said he agreed to be president last year of the nonpartisan State Legislative Leaders Foundation if it held its annual conference in his home city.
The executive director of a conservative think tank blasted the spending.
“Why should the public foot the bill for any of their conferences?” said Ashley Landess, of the South Carolina Policy Council. “It is a huge disconnect. South Carolinians right now don’t have the extra disposable income for this type of thing.”
Harrell, the event’s official host, said he thought the National Speakers Conference would cover legislators’ costs.
“I was disappointed in that, but the overall impact for the Charleston economy and the image of our community to leaders around the country was huge,” said Harrell, whose hotel tab was $1,519.
Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, said he knew that the hotel was being paid out of the House budget, and he sees no problem with that.
“You’ve got speakers from around the country. You’ve got legislators from around the country. Just the sharing of ideas makes for a better situation for gathering information and doing our jobs,” said Mack, whose tab was $560.
The House stopped paying for members’ conference expenses in 2008 because of recession-era budget cuts, but House leaders can make exceptions, said Harrell’s spokesman, Greg Foster.
Harrell, speaker since 2005, said he asked other South Carolina legislators to attend – including the House’s GOP and Democratic leaders – to serve as ambassadors for the host state.
The national conference received no other state funding. That differs from other events held in Charleston. For example, the Legislature designated $200,000 in the current budget for advertising the annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.
Another example is the 2006 National Governors Association conference in Charleston. The host committee set up by then-Gov. Mark Sanford to raise money for that event received a $150,000 taxpayer-funded grant. The impact of that conference to the local economy was $4.3 million, according to the College of Charleston.
Harrell said he instead asked South Carolina companies to donate, acknowledging that included companies that employ lobbyists at the Statehouse.
Landess said it’s an ethical problem for Harrell to solicit donations because paying lobbyists will expect better access.
But Harrell said everything was legal and proper and companies donated to create a “showcase of Charleston for leaders from around the country.”
During the January-to-June legislative session, legislators each receive $131 a day for meals and lodging expenses. Their annual salary is $10,400.