That’s what businesses and professional and trade organizations spent on nearly 70 receptions for lawmakers during the recently adjourned session of the Tennessee General Assembly.
The good news is that spending is public record, so it cannot be kept out of the public eye.
The bad news is, that’s nearly half a million dollars spent with the hard-to-miss goal of influencing legislation.
No, the fact that a lawmaker attends a lavish reception put on by, say, AT&T is not proof of some kind of quid pro quo: An array of heavy hors d’oeuvres in exchange for the “right” vote on a telecommunications bill seems farfetched.
But such receptions — which sometimes run into the tens of thousands of dollars — certainly give the well-heeled a level of access to legislators that is not always available to ordinary Tennesseans or to organizations that may do excellent work but that operate on a shoestring budget.
They thus can help set the mental framework by which lawmakers approach legislation that could have some bearing on the group giving the reception.
And let’s face it: Businesses and other organizations are not in the habit of throwing money away on efforts that they believe are unlikely to do them any good. If they are spending thousands of dollars on a legislative reception, it is in the hope that they will, at a minimum, be in the good graces of lawmakers, if not win support outright for their legislative agendas.
That makes it vital that the news media — including the Times Free Press, which has been vigilant in its reporting on this type of spending — keep the public thoroughly informed on the kinds of things that could directly or indirectly influence legislators.
Businesses and organizations have a right to make their cases to lawmakers. But it should be done in the light of day so that residents of Tennessee can judge whether elected officials are acting in the public’s broad interest or in a way that promotes primarily the narrower interests of a given group.
Then voters can decide whether a lawmaker deserves to remain in office — or to rejoin the private sector.