NASHVILLE - After a tentative move in 2008 to require more people advocating positions on legislation to register as lobbyists, the Tennessee Ethics Commission has retreated and now interprets state law so that some can avoid disclosing expenses related to influencing lawmakers.
Such interpretations may further have softened the scope of Tennessee's laws on lobbying, which a recent national study found lacking in some respects in disclosure of lobbyist spending.
For example, the interpretation affected the Tennessee Center for Policy Research in this year's legislative session.
The center staunchly advocated tort reform as Gov. Bill Haslam was pushing the idea in the General Assembly.
The group set up a website named focus577.org, for a TCRP study declaring that tort reform would produce 577 new jobs per week in Tennessee. The group aired radio commercials and erected billboards statewide urging residents to contact their legislators in support of tort reform. The website asked visitors to sign a petition to lawmakers.
When the bill passed, TCRP Executive Director Justin Owen declared in a news release it was a "tremendous victory" in "our campaign to bring about lawsuit abuse reform."
But that wasn't considered lobbying under state law, Owen said in an interview, so none of the spending was reported as a "lobbying-related expense" in TCRP's annual disclosure.
"We very carefully avoided mentioning a specific bill," he said, instead striving to "educate the public" on the need for tort reform in general terms.
As leader of the conservative organization that supports "free market policy solutions to public policy issues," Owen does register as a lobbyist on other issues.
TCRP reported its lobbying-related expenditures only as "less than $10,000," though Owen acknowledged the tort reform campaign cost more than that.
Owen's distinction between advocacy of an idea in general as "education" and advocacy of a specific bill is appropriate, said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance. He cited the 2010 Ethics Commission decision that finally resolved a long-running controversy.
That case began with then-Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, asking the commission whether a campaign against legislation to allow the sale of wine in grocery stores should be considered lobbying, with registration and disclosure required.
That campaign involved Seigenthaler Public Relations of Nashville contracting with the state's liquor wholesalers organization, a leading opponent of the wine-in-grocery-stores legislation then and now. The effort included a website where viewers could have an email automatically sent under their names to their legislators opposing the legislation under the premise that it would increase teenage drinking.
In a draft opinion, commission staff declared that the public relations firm was engaged in lobbyist-related activity. But that draft was thrown out on a technicality - that state law did not permit legislators to ask for such opinions unless personally involved in the dispute.
In 2008, Vanderbilt University professor Mike Shor filed a formal complaint against Seigenthaler. That triggered a secret investigation culminating in a closed-door ethics commission hearing in 2010. Shor did not attend; lawyers for the public relations company, the liquor wholesalers and others opposing his position did.
The decision, which became public at the end of the closed-door process, was that no law was broken.
"There are other types of expenditures that are for influencing legislative or administrative action but that are not for lobbying," the opinion states.
The opinion declares that corporations, associations and limited liability companies are not people and therefore cannot be lobbyists under state law. Therefore, "Seigenthaler was not lobbying in performing the services described in the complaint," the opinion states.
The National Institute for Money in State Politics recently completed a 50-state survey of lobbying laws, concluding that few states require comprehensive reporting and Tennessee is not one of them.
Twenty-five states require reporting of individual lobbyist compensation and related expenditures. Tennessee requires reporting only the "aggregate total" of some expenses within a broad range, for example, more than $50,000 but less than $100,000.
The Institute report notes that Tennessee, unlike many other states, does provide an online listing of lobbyists and their employers and conducts periodic audits of randomly selected lobbyists and employers to assure they have properly reported expenditures.