State legislative leaders hailed it as a historic moment when they enacted the first limits on election campaign contributions in Tennessee. That was only five years ago, but nowironically, even as voters around the country flock to John McCain’s insurgency campaign against big money in politicsDemocrats who run the Legislature are getting ready to let the cash flow freely here again.
What would cause lawmakers to turn back the clock? Fear, of course.
Income tax haters are threatening to fling great wads of money into political attack ads in this year’s legislative elections. So-called issue advocacy groups can raise unlimited amounts, spend as much as they want, and they don’t even have to disclose who’s giving them their money. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court has held that any attempt to restrict these groups is an infringement of their First Amendment rights.
The most notorious of these outfits is the Free Enterprise Coalition, which is led by Tommy Hopper, a fire-breathing former political director of the Republican National Committee. He claims his group alone can raise several hundred thousand dollars to defeat pro-income taxers in the Legislature.
Lawmakers are watching Hopper with high anxiety. Last year when he publicly targeted House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh for defeat, Naifeh suddenly turned cool toward the state income tax and virtually went into hiding during November’s disastrous second special session on the proposal.
Democratic lawmakers are also wringing their hands over the likelihood that the state Republican Party will go on a spending spree this fall. Political parties are allowed to accept unlimited ”soft-money“ contributions, and Democrats fear the GOP will swamp key state Senate contests with money in an attempt to take control of that chamber before next year’s all-important reapportionment.
In ’98, the party spent $200,000 for last-minute attack ads against Democratic Sens. Bob Rochelle and Pete Springer. Both won anyway, but the lesson was learned.
This year, Rochelle and Rep. Matt Kisber are sponsoring a bill to repeal the limitation on what candidates can raise for their campaigns from the political action committees (PACs) of special interests.
The law now prohibits candidates from raising more than $75,000 from PACs for any election. The only exceptions are statewide candidates. They can’t raise more than half their funds from PACs.
”The Republicans are all bragging about how much money they’ve raised,“ Rochelle says. ”It’s a fact of life. The odds are we’ll repeal these limitations on PAC contributions.“
Rochelle, a Democrat from Lebanon, solved this little problem for his own campaign in ’98 by busting the limits for PAC contributions. He accepted $68,000 more from PACs than the law allowed, then offered an oops-I-forgot defense to the state’s toothless ethics watchdog, the Registry of Election Finance. Predictably, the Registry accepted that explanation and didn’t punish Rochelle. But most lawmakers try to avoid flagrantly breaking laws, so Rochelle is offering his legislation.
The state GOP is up in arms. Chairman Chip Saltsman feigns outrage that Democrats are out to gut the state’s campaign finance law. He rightly points out that the legislation would give incumbents unlimited ability to shake down special interests. He says the bill is an attempt to help potentially vulnerable Democrats Rosalind Kurita and Jo Ann Graves hang onto their Senate seats.
”Senators Graves and Kurita are the queens of PAC money,“ Saltsman sneers in a press release. ”They’re trying to make court jesters out of Tennessee voters who won’t be amused by their political gamesmanship. If this bill passes, any hopes of these Democratic senators voting their consciences will be dashed by their unbearable burdens to do the will of the special interests.“
Actually, Republicans like limits on campaign contributions even less than Democrats do. Saltsman just wants to waylay a few Senate Democrats in this year’s elections, and he hopes they remain handcuffed by the law until then.
Democrats do have a point. So many groups have found so many ways to circumvent the contribution limits that it seems unfair to force candidates to abide by them.
Even Common Cause, the good-government group, is refraining from its usual harsh denunciations of lawmakers trying to undo campaign regulations.
”Our preference is to leave the PAC limits in place and look carefully at what we might do with regard to the other major loopholes,“ Common Cause state chairman Phil Schoggen says. But he concedes he doesn’t know what the state should do.
”I do know we have to make progress one step at a time,“ he adds. ”We’re going backwards rather than forwards.“
There are no easy solutions. Liberals favor public financing of campaigns. But that’s costly, and Tennessee’s lawmakers, a very conservative bunch, would never even consider doing that.
Many conservatives want to eliminate all campaign rules, permitting unlimited contributions from individuals and special interests but requiring quick disclosures on the Internet of who’s giving to whom. That would turn candidates into special-interest slot machines, but at least we’d find out about it fast.
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