Tennessee's Republican-dominated Legislature should be deeply embarrassed and ashamed by its unbridled rush to soak up PAC and corporate cash -- money that typically comes laden with the obligation of awarding legislative favors and bills designed by and for special interest lobbies.
It has just gotten a C-minus in lobbying disclosure, a C-minus in political financing and a D-minus in ethics enforcement in a comprehensive new report issued by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which grades the performance of state governments. (It also got an F for its excessively partisan decennial redistricting, which flagrantly pitted so many incumbent Democratic lawmakers against each other in pending fall elections.)
All that's bad enough. It tells you that our overly partisan lawmakers are being bought and led by lobbyists, smothering opposing voices, and muffling any possible flack from its hamstrung ethics committee, which has not publicly released any complaints it might have received since its establishment in 2006 in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal.
Yet Republican state lawmakers seem immune to embarrassment. They are now reinforcing their abysmal scores in the first three categories cited above by fast-tracking a bill that would further swamp the Legislature with corporate and PAC political cash.
This comes on top of the Republican-controlled Legislature's overwhelming approval last spring of a bill that lifted the ban on direct political contributions by corporations to lawmakers and candidates, making Tennessee one of the few states that allows such donations. Under that bill, corporations -- and their potentially anonymous leaders -- are allowed to donate $10,700 per election (primaries, regular elections and run-offs are all separate elections) to candidates for statewide office and the state senate, and $7,100 per election for local offices and the state House. These and other limits on donations, to be sure, are now in line under collateral legislation to be regularly adjusted for inflation.
The latest bill (HB 3281/SB 3645), co-sponsored by Hamilton County's State Sen. Bo Watson and GOP Rep. Deborah Maggart, would further broaden special interest campaign donations by removing the aggregate limits on PAC contributions to state and local political candidates.
Those limits now restrict a candidate's receipt of special interest PAC donations to 50 percent of the total donations received by candidates in multi-candidate races. With the ban lifted, candidates could receive fully 100 percent of their campaign funding from special interest PACs.
Relying on PACs
A limit of 50 percent is bad enough. But if the current Watson bill passes both chambers -- it has already zipped through the Senate on a party-line vote, and its before House committees now -- state and local candidates, especially incumbents, could simply rely on lobbyists and special interest PACs for their campaign financing.
Lobbyists' PAC cash already constitutes the bulk of the easy money that flows to easily bought legislators. Allowing special interest PACs to virtually own a candidate or incumbent, at both the state and local levels, by virtue of full funding for their campaigns would make it even easier for special interest groups to elect a politician who would -- nod, wink -- vote for their interests full-time.
Talk about bought-and-paid-for -- this is the financial pinnacle of potentially corrupt ownership of the Legislature, and probably a raft of local politicians as well. Who would need small donations from small donors, or care about protecting broader public interests?
Disastrous for public
This is inimical, indeed disastrous, to the public interest. It also speaks volumes about Sen. Watson that he is sponsoring such outrageous legislation. He should stop this cash-laden freight train now. His Nashville office number is 615.741.3227. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.