NASHVILLE - Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he will remain competitive in Republicans' 2010 gubernatorial primary even if lawmakers don't change a state law that now stops him from raising campaign cash when the General Assembly is meeting.
"It will shut me down (fundraising) for three months, but I've been concentrating on raising money right now," the Blountville Republican said. "Absolutely I can stay in the race. Wait 'til the numbers come out, and I think people will realize I can stay in."
He said he is undecided on whether to push yet again in the regular legislative session expected to start next month for changes to the 1996 law. It currently says sitting Tennessee House and Senate members cannot accept campaign contributions for any office when the General Assembly is in regular session.
Noting he is the only Republican gubernatorial candidate affected by the ban, Lt. Gov. Ramsey said, "any time you explain that to any citizen out there, they all say that's blatantly unfair that I'm the only one in this race that can't raise money. We should have thought about that in 1996."
Still, the lieutenant governor said, two influential House Republicans who helped block changes in the waning hours of the last legislative session recently have told him they can support modifications to the law provided sufficient safeguards are in place.
Both House Calendar and Rules Chairman Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, confirmed they are re-evaluating their previous positions. Rep. Dunn voted against the measure, which failed on a 10-10 committee vote, while Rep. Harwell did not vote.
Rep. Harwell said she has re-evaluated her position in light of the fundraising advantage enjoyed by Lt. Gov. Ramsey's GOP primary competitors - U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam; and Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons.
"We now have people running for office - a current mayor, a current congressman - all able to raise money during this time," she said. "And our lieutenant governor can't. And so basically, that's not fair."
She said there should be some provision preventing lawmakers running for governor or other office from raising funds during session and then shifting the money into legislative contests should they later drop out.
Rep. Dunn, a leader on legislative ethics issues, said he wants to ensure "we get it right and not construct it (change) because of personalities involved in this current race."
He said remains "very concerned about lobbyists able to hand-deliver political action committee checks to members debating bills." Rep. Dunn said he also recognizes the unfairness to legislators unable to raise funds for months when their rivals can.
His idea is to set up a "firewall" between candidates and donors. The campaign of a legislator running for governor or other office could solicit funds but would remain out of the loop on what contributions had been received until after the session ended.
Tennessee Common Cause Chairman Dick Williams argued the existing ban should be retained in its entirety.
"The reason for that (law) is to diminish the influence of money on actions during a legislature and the same influence would be there," he said.
He said Common Cause members "don't allege that every contribution is a quid pro quo bribe, but it is an influence we feel is in the public interest to diminish as much as possible."
A Democratic gubernatorial hopeful also affected by the law, state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, of Memphis, said he still does not support the change.
"I'm not changing my position," Sen. Kyle said. "Those are the rules. I'm not going to vote to change the law."
Asked if he would raise funds if the law were changed, Sen. Kyle said, "I will follow the law."
But House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, said he continues to support the changes, adding they help someone running against "wealthy" individuals.
Lawmakers are to reconvene Jan. 12, but Gov. Phil Bredesen intends to call them first into a special session on K-12 and higher education. Lt. Gov. Ramsey indicated that with his mind largely on the special session and the state's budget woes, he would not proceed on changing the fundraising ban until the regular session.
The in-session fundraising ban starts when the regular session does and runs until the session ends or, in even-numbered years such as 2010, by May 15, whichever comes first.
Southeast Tennessee lawmakers offered conflicting views on the issue during a recent roundtable discussion with Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters.
Describing the "fundamental issue" as one of fairness, Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, asked "is it fair for someone who's in the legislature, who's serving, to not be able to raise funds while those who are not ... are raising (funds)?"
Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, said he had "kind of mixed feelings" about changes, recalling a three-month fundraising advantage he had in his 2008 challenge to an appointed senator who could not raise money as lawmakers met.
"If we could raise money I might not be there, but I am there now," Sen. Stewart said, drawing chuckles from colleagues.
But on a more serious note, the lawmaker said "is it only fair to allow those gubernatorial candidates to raise money and not the rest of the legislature? Because the logic is not there."
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said "we shouldn't be concerned about making decisions based on short-term political factors. If things are going to happen, they should happen in the future and not in this (2010) election cycle."
Moreover, he argued, "people are suspicious right now of politicians doing things for themselves when citizens are hurting and need help and attention."
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said some of the ramifications that need to be worked through include finding some way to say a legislator running for other office "can't funnel it off to other candidates."
Moreover, he said, the effort needs to be bipartisan.
"That's the linchpin for me to even look at it," he said.