Political reporters this weekend reported on the overwhelming influence of money in state politics.
Long story short: with Republicans in charge, there’s more money — from rich and powerful interests — in state politics than ever before.
And with the new GOP rules that raise contribution limits and allow direct donations from businesses, the influence of special interest groups — not hard-working citizens who can’t afford lobbyists — is only going to increase.
“Lobbyists had busy year in Nashville,” Times Free Press:
Special interests this year spent millions of dollars seeking to influence the Tennessee General Assembly on issues ranging from a proposed cap on personal injury lawsuit awards to letting grocery stores sell wine, records show.
Fights in these and other areas, including education policy and telecommunications competition, often played out not only in committee rooms and on the House and Senate floor but behind the scenes in lawmakers’ offices, legislative corridors and sometimes lavish receptions for lawmakers.
Groups also spent money in more public ways with studies, telemarketing campaigns and advertising aimed at encouraging the public to pressure legislators.
In the view of Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga: “Special interests play an outsized role in our government and especially in our legislature.”
“Obviously, what we do affects wholesale industries, but it’s difficult not to look at what goes on in the legislature and worry about the individual citizen having his proper say, also,” Berke said.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, countered that lobbyists represent Tennesseans who don’t have time to come to the legislature every day.
“It’s good for anyone to get their story in front of the legislators, especially the legislators that aren’t necessarily familiar with the issue. In that way, I think just anyone coming to see you would be helpful to their cause,” McCormick said.
Moreover, he said, “We can’t stop people from lobbying. I think the First Amendment makes it clear that people can come lobby, so we have set up a system where they have to at least report who’s paying them.”
Nearly $520,000 was spent in total. That’s according to filings on the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance website. But it was only a fraction of lobbying costs. The reporting period came seven weeks before the May 21 end of the legislative session, so many totals will be higher.
Other lobby disclosures reveal scrambling by Amazon.com to fend off lawmakers and retailers who hoped to force it to collect state sales taxes at distribution centers it is building in Chattanooga and Bradley County.
Amazon increased its lobbying staff from one to 10, records show.
AT AN ADVANTAGE
Dick Williams with the watchdog group Tennessee Common Cause, said that when combined with campaign contributions, groups that lobby at the Capitol have an advantage.
Businesses, in particular, benefit, he said.
“It just flies in the face that lobbying and contributions don’t influence legislation,” Williams said. Companies “want to get results that directly affect their bottom line.”
“$519,000 Used To Entertain State Lawmakers,” WSMV:
Special interest groups spent at least $519,000 this year wining and dining state lawmakers. Last year, even though the legislative session was longer, only $390,000 was spent.
“You’ve got a lot of new legislators that special interests or lobbying groups want to ‘educate’ to their issues,” said Dick Williams of Common Cause of Tennessee, a voter watchdog group.
The five of the most expensive events were:
- The Farm Bureau spent more than $23,000 on a luncheon
- AT&T shelled out $22,000 for a reception
- The Hospital Association spent $18,000
- The School Board Association
- The Chamber of Commerce reported events costing $17,000.
AT&T had a bill opposed by small phone companies up in the Legislature. The hospital association was a big backer of capping lawsuit damages. The School Board Association was the force behind this year’s most controversial issue: ending collective bargaining for teachers.
“Corporations and for-profit companies don’t spend that kind of money on something they don’t feel is going to bring them some return either financial or otherwise,” said Williams.
“Interest groups wined, dined TN lawmakers,” The Tennessean:
Special interest groups and lobbyists, ranging from the Tennessee Concrete Association to the Tennessee Bar Association, hosted 75 events, according to reports filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission.
“We’re always dealing with concentrated benefits and distributed costs,” said community activist and tea party leader Ben Cunningham. “That’s the reality of government. Everybody pays for it, and in many cases the recipients of government largess are small groups, small corporations … who can justify spending huge amounts of money on attaining special favors. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Money buys access
Cunningham said the average citizen has a difficult time getting the attention of his state senator or representative the way special interest groups can with expensive events.
“Money means access, and access means power,” Cunningham said. “That is very much true in politics today. It’s probably going to continue to be true, unfortunately.”
Other expensive events were held by corporations including AT&T, which hosted a reception with an open bar and hors d’oeuvres, at a cost of $22,406.39.
Chattanooga Times Free Press Rails Against Bank Influence. “It’s pretty obvious that the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly puts the interests of banks ahead of those of the average Tennessean. Why else would legislators be in such a rush to approve a law that would significantly reduce the advance warning home-owners receive before their property is foreclosed? The only plausible explanation is that legislators are far more willing to do the bidding of the well-heeled bankers and their lobbyists than to properly serve and protect those who elected them to office. [“Foreclosure bill is bad law,” Chattanooga Times Free Press Editorial Board, 5/13/11]
Gov. Bill Haslam Hosts GOP Fundraiser During Legislative Session. The lavish soirée was held March 31 at the governor’s mansion in the “the party room.” Tickets ranged from $3,000 to $25,000. [Humphrey on the Hill, May 23, 2011]
Haslam Flaunts Fundraising Ethics Rules. State law bans fundraising by legislators while the General Assembly is in session. It was passed years ago to address public perceptions that lawmakers were “shaking down” special interests with business being considered by the legislature. [Chattanooga Times Free Press, 3/22/11]