During the past decade, Tennessee has made some real progress in the area of campaign finance reform. Before 1990, lawmakers were only required to list the names of their contributors, and the size of their contributions, on campaign-disclosure forms that were filed in the office of the secretary of state, where they simply gathered dust. No one looked at the numbers to make sure they added up. Legislators never received any registered letters asking them for a better accounting.
Things have changed a lot since then. A state watchdog agency has been created to crunch every number on every campaign disclosure form filed by every candidate in a state election. Such reforms are progressive for a state like Tennessee, even though the law still requires that anybody reviewing the documents must sign a form and give his driver’s license number. (Legislators have made sure that they will know who’s requesting their files, and they want to know how to get in touch with anybody who’s reviewed their financial records.) In 1995 the Legislature actually passed a law that, for the first time in Tennessee history, limited the amount citizens can contribute to political campaigns.
This year, the crusade continues. Sort of.
This time around, state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require lobbyists and political action committees to be more accountable for their activities. In the past, in a few highly notorious cases, special interests have managed to elude the state’s campaign financial disclosure laws by creating PACs and then conveniently dissolving them. When fines were levied against them for failing to comply with disclosure laws, the PACs would simply close up shop. Legislation proposed this year by Democrats would hold the treasurers of the defunct PACs personally responsible for paying the fines.
One of the specific targets of the proposed legislation is the Tennessee Conservative Union, a right-wing group based in East Tennessee. Even among some conservative Republicans, the Union has a reputation for being obnoxious, but it is also known for its effectiveness. Last year the Union staged press conferences at which it brought forth a parade of crime victims and frustrated law-enforcement officials. As a result, in a yes-no retention vote, the Union helped bring down Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny White.
Over the past several years, the Conservative Union has run up some $50,000 in fines, levied against it for failing to file disclosure reports with the state’s campaign finance watchdog agency, the state Registry of Election Finance.
John Davies, the Knoxvillian who founded the Union, has proven himself a master at manipulating the state’s obviously flawed campaign finance oversight system. Time and again, he has created various political action committees, only to disband them before paying the fines charged against them by the state. The Registry of Election Finance has compiled a history of the Conservative Union’s violations, which date back to 1990.
Like a police officer who’s been trying to catch a chronic parking violator for years, the Registry of Election Finance has grown weary of chasing the Tennessee Conservative Union. This year, the Registry successfully solicited the help of Tennessee lawmakers in collecting the Union’s longstanding debt.
The Legislature seems willing to help the Registry take down a chronic offender. On the other hand, some legislators are perfectly willing to challenge other sorts of campaign finance reform. Specifically, some don’t want to see changes in the rules that say how legislators and candidates for the Legislature can raise and spend money during and between campaigns.
Faced with a public outcry for campaign reform, the Legislature only grudgingly passed a contribution-limit law in 1995. The idea for contribution limits had been around for several years, but it wasn’t until two years ago that ethicists were able to marshal the support necessary to convince lawmakers to pass a bill.
Now the staff and board of directors of the Registry of Election Finance have developed rules to enforce and clarify the 1995 law. The office of the state attorney general has signed off on the Registry’s proposed rules, but a group of Democrats, led by Sen. Bob Rochelle of Lebanon, have signed a petition for a public hearing, presumably as an opportunity to air their concerns. The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 18, in the state Senate chambers.
In addition to Rochelle, the Democrats requesting the hearing include Speaker of the Senate John Wilder, Davidson County Sens. Joe Haynes and Thelma Harper, and Rochelle’s wife, Janice.
Bob Rochelle says there are no Republican names on his petition because he solicited signatures during a meeting of the Democratic caucus, held at Fall Creek Falls State Park shortly before this year’s legislative session began.
Still, the absence of any Republican signatures suggests that consideration of the Registry’s rules could result in a partisan squabble. So far, the minority GOP contingent in the Legislature hasn’t had much to say about the issue, and Gov. Don Sundquist is deferring any judgment.
Rochelle, however, is making his own predictions.
“The Republicans are going to hate [the campaign finance reform rules] more than we do,” Rochelle says, brushing aside campaign contributions as an upcoming partisan struggle. But Rochelle may be underestimating his fellow lawmakers’ interest in the topic. At least one state senator on the other side of the political aisle, Sen. Bud Gilbert of Knoxville, has long been an advocate for tougher ethics and campaign finance regulations to govern Tennessee’s political campaigns. He could very well become a strong voice in the campaign finance debate.
Rochelle says he opposes the Registry’s proposed rules because the Legislature is responsible for dictating matters of policy, such as campaign finance regulations. He says it is not the business of the staff and board of a state agency to make those sort of rules. “If the Registry usurps power in this way, there will be no reason for us to pass a statute on this subject again,” Rochelle says.
Peggy Catalano, executive director of the Registry, says Rochelle is wrong. According to Catalano, the office of the state attorney general has not indicated that there is anything wrong with her agency setting the rules, which, she says, are based on Federal Election Commission regulations. In fact, she points out, the AG’s office has approved them.
In gubernatorial campaigns or campaigns for the state Senate, the Legislature’s 1995 statute set campaign contribution limits of $2,500 for individuals and $7,500 for PACs. In state House races, congressional races, and U.S. Senate races, the contribution limits are $1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for PACs.
Those limits are clear enough. But the Registry’s regulations go beyond the 1995 law, and that’s why Rochelle and his fellow Democrats are up in arms. For example, the Registry is demanding that special interest groups disclose any and all expenditures on behalf of political candidates. For instance, the Registry would require either of the state’s major political partiesRepublican or Democraticto disclose any money spent to mail campaign brochures for candidates. The Registry cannot limit what political parties spend on such mailings, because, in numerous cases, it has been ruled that such limitations would be a restriction of free speech. Still, the Registry would like to have such expenditures disclosed as part of the public record.
The Registry also wants to ban all anonymous contributions, which have traditionally been allowed in Tennessee campaigns. Under current state law, any contributor who gives $100 or more to a candidate must be listed on the candidate’s campaign finance disclosure form. Contributors who give lessespecially if it’s cash dropped into a fishbowl at a fund-raisermay never show up on the radar screen. Theoretically, there’s nothing to prevent an anonymous contributor from exceeding the campaign contribution limits.
Rochelle defends Tennessee’s tradition of anonymous contributions, even if, he says, it’s not the sort of fund-raising he prefers. “I don’t like anonymous contributions because I like to get in touch with people again,” Rochelle says. Nevertheless, he says, he doesn’t want to force his opinion on other politicians. “In West Tennessee, the fishbowls are a big deal. They’re a tradition,” he says.
The Registry’s Catalano says she doesn’t know what to expect at next Tuesday’s public hearing about the proposed rules. Any comments, she says, will be considered by the Registry’s board when it meets next month. Recent history suggests that there will be some changes. When the Registry drafted rules to accompany the new law governing the practices of lobbyists, Catalano says, “We changed some things, even deleted whole rules based on the comments of lobbyists.”
Whatever the outcome of next week’s discussion, legislators probably don’t need to pack away their fishbowls. After all, they get the final say on the campaign finance issue. They can gut their own 2-year-old law if they so please.
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