Tennessee state House members quietly killed legislation last week that would have forced them to report details about expensive gifts they receive from politically influential people, while state senators Monday night passed a bill that would allow them to raise twice as much money as they can legally raise now.
House members gave no reason as to why they killed the transparency bill. State senators said they needed to effectively double limits on how much they can raise because Senate districts are bigger than House districts.
The moves come amid an ongoing USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee investigation that revealed lawmakers abuse state campaign finance law through various, possibly illegal, uses of state and campaign money.
On March 28, the House Local Government subcommittee quickly balked at a proposal from Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport. Hulsey proposed amending one of his bills so lawmakers would be required to publicly report all gifts they receive valued at more than $100.
"There’s been a great deal of scrutiny toward us and what we report and don’t report: trips that folks have given us and we’ve gone on, training trips, those kinds of things. ... Sometimes the public views us as hiding these things, we’re taking favors from people. Not lobbyists, but companies, organizations, individuals," Hulsey told the lawmakers on the subcommittee.
"And all this (bill) does is say, 'Hey, we’re aboveboard, we don’t have anything to hide, there’s nothing wrong with taking a gift.' You can take a gift that’s not from a lobbyist. It’s just, if it meets this criteria that it’s over $100, all you’ve got to do is report it. That’s all you’ve got to do. So it’s just transparency."
State law already prohibits lawmakers from receiving gifts from lobbyists or entities that employ lobbyists. But anyone else can provide a gift. As Hulsey put it, if someone who isn't a lobbyist offered to give him $250 worth of tickets for a race at the Bristol Motor Speedway, his proposal wouldn't prevent a lawmaker from taking that gift. All his plan would do is require that lawmaker to publicly disclose the gift.
In 2016, a USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee investigation revealed lawmakers going on trips to Europe, Alabama and North Carolina that were funded by advocates. This week an investigation showed state legislative leaders used $50,000 of campaign funds in recent years to pay for membership dues at The Standard Club, a private club. In some cases, the Standard Club political action committee gave lawmakers' campaign committees or PACs the exact amount of money needed to pay for a private membership.
But state campaign ethics officials said that's probably not a violation of campaign finance law because The Standard doesn't employ a lobbyist.
The House subcommittee, instead of requiring additional transparency for gifts, quickly voted against Hulsey's amendment and his original bill.
The subcommittee didn't request a roll call vote, so it's unclear who decided to vote against the measure. Video from the meeting shows subcommittee chairman Dale Carr, R-Sevierville, voted against the measure. State Reps. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, and John Crawford, R- Kingsport, asked the record to reflect they voted in favor of the bill.
The no vote in the subcommittee kills the legislation's chance of passing this year.
State senators took just as little time debating legislation that opens the door to millions of more dollars flowing in Senate campaigns. The proposal, an amendment from Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, would allow Senate campaign donation limits to reset every two years, as is the case with House elections. However, state senators are up for election every four years, which means the measure will allow candidates to continue receiving at times large donations from political parties, private corporations and individual donors.
“If we pass this bill, our aggregate fundraising limit for PACs in a four-year cycle would go from $236,200 to $472,400. Our aggregate limit from parties would go from $126,000 to $252,000. And so just from party committees and PACs, a single member of this body would be able to raise up to $724,000 without raising a dollar from an individual, which is truly double what we are able to raise right now," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, on the Senate floor.
"While I would love to raise more money, I don’t necessarily think the people of Tennessee want us to be able to raise three-quarters of a million dollars basically from party committees and PACs.”
Yarbro and Memphis Democrats Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris and Sara Kyle were the only senators to vote against the amendment. Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, voted for it, while Sen. Reggie Tate, D-Memphis, sat in the back of the chamber and didn't vote at all.
The amended bill also easily passed the Senate. Because the House adopted a different version of this legislation, the House would either have to accept the Senate's action or have members of both chambers meet in what's called a conference committee before the measure could become state law.