NASHVILLE — 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.”
As for the wining and dining of lawmakers, McCormick said, “I don’t know if the receptions make much difference. I know I rarely go to them.”
Apparently believing, though, that access to legislators may run through their stomachs, various companies, associations and groups shelled out nearly $520,000 to entertain and, they say, educate lawmakers at 75 dinner, lunch and breakfast receptions.
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.
Trial lawyers squared off with a battalion of business groups over one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s priorities, a cap on noneconomic damages in personal injury lawsuits.
Despite hiring former Republican U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, the trial lawyer and Hollywood actor, the Tennessee Association of Justice and its seven-member lobby team found itself outflanked, overwhelmed and ultimately beaten.
“We knew we were on the right side of the issue — fighting to save Tennessee’s civil justice system and Tennesseans’ right to trial by jury,” Association of Justice spokeswoman Jill Hudson said.
But the trial lawyers faced 52 groups and businesses — including the Tennessee Medical Association, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry and Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee — assembled by Tennesseans for Economic Growth, which supported tort reform.
“We felt that one of the most important things in the governor’s platform was this issue of jobs, creating jobs, bringing new jobs to the state, but also creating ... the best environment possible,” said Douglas Buttrey, executive director of Tennesseans for Economic Growth.
While public attention focused mostly on efforts to end collective bargaining for teachers and expansion of charter schools, lobbyists were at work in areas of education ranging from for-profit colleges to textbooks.
Grocers fought liquor distributors again this year for the right to sell wine in grocery stores.
Retailers argued grocery store chains would crush them. Grocers touted the benefits to consumers.
The grocers lost again but got “further this year than it’s gone before,” said Jarron Springer, executive director of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association.
Among the issues for telecommunications giant AT&T was reducing connection fees the company must pay to link customers with smaller, rural telephone companies.
Spokesman Chris Walker said a “broad coalition of telephone providers” worked to modernize telecommunications laws this year and “we were proud to join the cooperatives and independents in supporting a compromise that addresses this issue.”
But Larry Drake, whose Tennessee Telecommunications Association represents smaller companies, said the change will cost his clients $12 million to $16 million a year.
“That was a lot of money our companies depend on,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association, which represents Comcast and other cable companies, managed to quash efforts by EPB and other municipal electric services to expand Internet and cable outside their current service areas.
Efforts to contact EBP’s Harold DePriest last week were unsuccessful.
TORPEDOED BY TENN AM
In April, Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, found himself in deep water when he filed a bill that would allow Tennessee American Water Co. to raise rates only once every six years.
His bill was bottled up in committee, and Floyd suspects a coordinated attack launched by the five-member TennesseeAmerican lobbying team.
“Somewhere up there somebody pushed that down,” Floyd said. “They got to somebody, and I intend to find out.”
Tennessee American spokeswoman Kim Dalton said, “We respect Rep. Floyd,” but that his bill was unconstitutional.
“If it had passed, we would have had a rate case once every six years,” she said.
Other battles included a fight between bankers and the Tennessee Press Association, which represents newspapers including the Chattanooga Times Free Press, over foreclosure notices banks must publish in newspapers. They eventually reached an agreement.
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.”
But Springer with the grocers group said lobbyists are simply “educating citizen-based legislature on issues they don’t deal with daily.”
“You can’t expect to be a lobbyist and be worth anything if you’re not going to go and provide good information,” he said. “Anyone who does otherwise is probably not going to be around long.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...