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Environmentalists converge on Statehouse to lobby for conservation

Abramoff's Antithesis

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Every Tuesday around lunchtime, Tim Landholt gathers with a group of like-minded conservationists outside the Statehouse in Columbia. The 23-year-old college student and a small group of volunteers are briefed by a representative from the Conservation Voters of South Carolina on what crucial bills are being decided that week. Then they enter the lobby that divides the Senate and House, and they wait — sometimes as long as three hours — for the chance to speak with their political representatives for about three minutes.

"I only recently realized that being a lobbyist refers to being in the lobby," says John Ramsburgh, director of the Sierra Club in S.C. "Talking to representatives and reminding the legislators that they're working for us can frequently tip the scales in our favor."

All bills must cross from the House to the Senate (and vice versa) by May 1 or face a difficult two-thirds vote to cross over after that date in the 2008 legislative session. With that deadline in mind, 102 concerned citizens from across the state — most of them new to lobbying legislators — gathered in Columbia April 29 for "Conservation Day" to collectively lobby their representatives. Energy efficiency, funding of the Conservation Bank, and control of public waterways were the topics du jour.

Conservation Bank Funding

"We started out asking for $20 million this year, and then thought it might be five," says Marvin Davant, director of the Conservation Bank. "It got down to one, and then we lost that, and we are trying to figure out if we'll survive at all."

The Conservation Bank has protected 134,172 acres in its three-and-a-half year existence by purchasing parcels with high public or environmental value before they can be developed. A clause in the bill that created the group states that in years when over half of state agencies see budget cuts, the Conservation Bank will receive no funding at all, which is the case in this low budget year.

Sen. Chip Campsen (R-Berkeley-Charleston), who authored the bill creating the Conservation Bank, refers to the clause as a "pound of flesh" he gave to get it passed. He introduced bill S. 1302 to remove the "death clause" from the organization's funding. It received all positive votes in committee, but was held up by a request from Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Darlington-Florence) the Thursday prior to Conservation Day.

"We're at a critical crossroads in our funding capabilities," says Davant. "We have a great opportunity to make a difference in the kind of heritage South Carolina maintains, but the window of opportunity is very short."

Energy Efficiency

According to Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston), an energy crisis in S.C. is "just around the corner."

"Brownouts are not any imagined threat. They are a reality that will start coming forward if we don't make progress," he says. "The cleanest kilowatt of electricity to generate is the kilowatt you don't have to generate at all. With the price of electricity rising an estimated 35 to 75 percent by 2015, efficiency is clearly the key."

McConnell introduced six bills pertaining to energy efficiency in the Senate this year, four of which survived subcommittees and awaited third hearings last week:

• S. 1140 requires state government agencies to set renewable energy goals and purchase efficient products, including replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents.

• S. 1141 eliminates state sales tax and provides a tax credit for buyers of Energy Star certified mobile homes through 2019.

• S. 1143 gives buyers a sales tax holiday on Energy Star products during the month of October.

• S. 1076 creates a new nonprofit to help low income families make energy-efficient improvements to their homes.

"Twenty-two percent of places served by electric utilities in the state are manufactured homes, and they're among the least energy-efficient buildings in the state. Those who can least afford increased power costs need help bridging the gap to reduce their consumption," says McConnell. "We have to make gains in the environmental area that also allow continued power supplies, or the conservation community could end up being blamed for shortages. I see the coming energy crisis as an issue that could reshape the landscape of the political world."

Water Control

Currently, companies can remove as much water as they want from state rivers without obtaining permits. If they take more than three million gallons a month, they're required to report it.

With the Palmetto State challenging North Carolina in a Supreme Court lawsuit over the amount of water our northern neighbor withdraws from the Catawba River before it flows into S.C., we'll need our own system of regulation on the books to have a dog in that fight. That requires a baseline minimum flow established in our waterways, an effort that began in earnest this legislative session but has largely dried up due to disagreements between industry and conservationists over acceptable levels.

"Waterways are public property, and industrial and business owners should not have priority over boats, bass, and Bubba when it comes to rivers," says Sen. Campsen. "Why on earth would we put potential businesses that don't even exist yet before the public unless we want to make sure we become an industrial wasteland as soon as we possibly can?"

The S.C. Chamber of Commerce has previously proposed a minimum flow of 20 percent of the annual average water level in the state's rivers. At that level of withdrawal, some rivers like the Little Pee Dee would be left as dry washes. Campsen favors a breakdown of percentages throughout the year, which will ensure sustainable flow in all seasons.

On to the Lobby

After briefings from McConnell, Campsen, and environmental notables like the Coastal Conservation League's Dana Beach, the hundred some-odd spring chicken lobbyists headed over to the Statehouse. On most days, paid industry lobbyists outnumber the (mostly volunteer) environmentalists 10 to one. The scales were tipped last Tuesday, as regulars like Tim Landholt coached fresh faces on how to approach their legislators for the first time and express their concerns and support for energy efficiency and the Conservation Bank. After receiving a "note" from the lobby with the citizen's name, district, and concern, it's up to legislators whether they'll remain at their desks or step into the lobby to speak with their constituents. Many came out to talk Tuesday.

As last week's proceedings carried on, all four of Sen. McConnell's bills passed the Senate and were given to the House, ahead of the May 1 deadline. Two similar efficiency bills made the jump from House to Senate. The Conservation Bank's "death clause" reprieve did not pass and will have to wait until next year. If the drought continues this summer, the pressure to regulate industrial water use will be heavy next spring as well. When that day comes, there will likely be a healthy contingent of conservationists on hand to speak their mind.

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