Metropolitik: Dark Days in the Transit Debate

The most visible opponents to the city’s transit initiative want you to take a microscope to Nashville’s light-rail plan — but not to their finances.

Who is No Tax 4 Tracks? It is a bipartisan coalition — in the sense that a group of Green Hills and Belle Meade Republicans can hire a Democratic strategist to throw mud at a transit plan and hope enough sticks to beat it. 

But when the group’s latest financial disclosure was released two weeks ago, the truth was far worse than it being the same folks who hated The Amp getting the band back together for another attempt to stop mass transit. Of almost $950,000 raised to fund the campaign against the transit referendum, $750,000 came from a single source: Nashville Smart Inc., a 501(c)(4) nonprofit with its address listed as the home of anti-transit stalwart Lonnie Spivak. 

If that doesn’t set off alarm bells, perhaps you should recalibrate your political sensibilities.

You may remember that the Citizens United decision in 2010 gave us this mess: 501(c)(4) organizations like Nashville Smart are so-called “social welfare” nonprofits that in most cases are just pass-throughs for political money, but without the disclosure requirements that apply to political action committees. Nowadays, these nonprofits effectively serve as a form of political money laundering for people who don’t want to draw attention to the forces that are really behind a particular effort.

In January, Nashville supervillain Lee Beaman — an auto-dealing magnate known for his support of such legislation as 2009’s hateful “English Only” initiative — told anti-transit supporters just how to clean their donations at a meeting at the Koch brothers-affiliated Beacon Center in January.

“I did not say they could hide their donations,” Beaman told The Tennessean. “I said that PAC donors are public records and a (c)(4), as the law is, says they’re not. That’s all I said. … I didn’t encourage them to donate one way or another.”

Almost 80 percent of the No Tax 4 Tracks money is dark money, accountable to no one. Jeff Eller, the group’s spokesperson and strategist, says he can’t coordinate with Nashville Smart — but there’s nothing here to coordinate, except for which bank to use to deposit the money. Nashville Smart is a shell of a website with a few links and nothing more.

In the meantime, Eller’s group has been churning out bullshit about the transit plan, with two particularly egregious pieces of propaganda getting passed around.

First, No Tax 4 Tracks says the plan will cost the average Davidson County resident $43,608 over the life of the plan. But almost anything looks expensive when you extrapolate it over the course of a half-century. Nashville native and current D.C. resident Sam Warlick had the best perspective on this exaggeration on Twitter: “Y’all really tried to go fifty years out? Should I cancel my $6,500 Netflix account? My $38,000 gym membership? I could buy a house!”

The second statement is that the plan will make Nashville’s sales tax the highest of any major city in America at 10.25 percent, with the tone of every ad making it sound like transit will turn the city into some sort of tax hellhole. But our sales tax rate is already one of the highest anywhere at 9.25 percent. Why? Because Tennessee is so averse to an income tax that a high sales tax is the only way to fund vast parts of state and local government. It is completely disingenuous for the No Tax 4 Tracks crowd to push this nonsense — like the $1 on $100 of purchases that the plan will generate is some kind of tipping point that will tank the future of the city. These folks have no intention of fixing the tax code, but they’re quick to use it to bludgeon any attempt to fix our transit issues.

This is in addition to the group’s favorite line, that light rail is a “19th-century technology,” as though the internal combustion engines that they favor in cars aren’t the same. 

All of that brings us back to Beaman, Nashville’s most visible car dealer and right-wing-cause supporter. The man who brought us the aforementioned English-only initiative and who helped shoot down the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance — in addition to being one of the biggest forces in killing Nashville’s last transit plan, The Amp — has been lurking in the shadows. Though he stepped down as treasurer of No Tax 4 Tracks in February, he may still be bankrolling the effort through Nashville Smart, but we can’t say for sure thanks to the opacity of the disclosure laws. We do know that the day before Beaman shared his views on giving at the Beacon Center, Nashville Smart gave a $150,000 check to No Tax 4 Tracks. Coincidence?

The presence of this kind of dark money in our politics is corrosive. It fuels suspicion that No Tax 4 Tracks is just the same small group of rich folks and their powerful friends as always, willing to write checks to stop transit but never willing to actually solve the city’s problems.

This should be infuriating to Nashvillians. 

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