Tech Schools Board Shells Out $200K for “Lobbying”

To entice legislators to send more money its way, the S.C. State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education will pay a Columbia advertising agency up to $200,000 to design a seal and compile statistics about the state technical school system.

The tech board, which operates the S.C. Technical College System, enlisted ad firm Chernoff Newman for the campaign to create a seal that ties together the 16-school system and its affiliate programs, and assembles data about the system’s impact for a de facto lobbying effort.

“This is a positioning campaign for us, to help with advocacy,” board spokeswoman Kelly Steinhilper said. “The ultimate goal is to build awareness in legislators’ minds of the system’s impact on the state’s economy.”

Nearly $110,000 has been spent with Chernoff Newman on the venture since the beginning of FY08-2009. The tech board allocated $100,000 for both FY08-2009 and FY09-2010, Steinhilper said, but added that this year’s amount may have to be trimmed because of state budget cuts.

Steinhilper said that the seal has been approved internally but won’t be released publicly until later this month.

 

The job is just the latest state government deal for Chernoff Newman. Since the beginning of FY07-2008, Chernoff Newman has handled work for at least nine different state agencies and been paid more than $4 million, according to information available on the Comptroller General’s website.

The rationale behind the tech board’s campaign? Steinhilper said that while legislators are usually familiar with technical schools in their own areas, they’re often unaware of tech schools in other parts of the state.

But that raises a question: If each school has supporters in the General Assembly, why does the tech board need to spend money “building awareness?” It’s not as if those in the tech system aren’t already shelling out cash to try and curry favor with lawmakers.

According to State Ethics Commission principal disclosure reports, the following technical schools have expended taxpayer funds on lobbying this year:

  • TriCounty Tech, which has spent $25,864 on lobbying in 2009;
  • Florence-Darlington Tech, $8,434; and
  • Greenville Tech, $7,670.

Also, the Midlands Technical College Foundation and Trident Technical College Foundation have spent more than $24,000 between them on lobbying this year.

In addition, the S.C. Association of Technical College Commissioners, a separate organization that seeks to foster cooperation and improve the dissemination of information regarding the system’s schools, has spent more than $21,000 on lobbying in 2009.

While Chernoff Newman’s job is categorized as “management consultant services,” the endeavor is little more than thinly disguised lobbying, even if it’s different than hiring individuals to stalk the corridors of the Statehouse.

The end goal is the same: Paying out big bucks to influence legislators in a bid to get more money and pass laws that are favorable to the board and, by extension, its institutions.

To pay an agency to design a seal and compile statistics so it can make a better case why lawmakers should send more money its way is not only wasteful, it’s redundant. For one thing, the tech system’s website already has a facts page regarding the system’s impact on South Carolina, information easily accessible from the organization’s home page.

Using state dollars to create marketing material for the singular purpose of wooing legislators is particularly disturbing given the state’s dire financial condition. Schools, colleges, prisons and other state agencies lost 4 percent of their budgets last month as the state Budget and Control Board enacted a new round of across-the-board budget cuts.

It also points out another unsettling trend: the belief among far too many high up in government that the job of public bodies is no longer to serve taxpayers, but that taxpayers exist to fund government.

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