Legal bribes made easy

Legal bribes made easy

June 5th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Tennessee's Legislature didn't just ban teachers' meager bargaining rights with local school boards in this year's session. Lawmakers also stripped the Tennessee Education Association of its long-standing right to collect dues that might be used for contributions by the TEA's political action committee. Yet even as lawmakers broke the teachers union and dried up its nominal campaign clout, they set a legislative landmark for campaign gifts to themselves by giving corporations and businesses the right to make direct campaign contributions to individual legislators.

It's hard to overstate the politically hazardous consequences of this money-grabbing act by the Legislature. It also makes the comparison with lawmakers' vengeful treatment of the TEA significantly more jarring. That lawmakers would have the gall to create a new way to get campaign cash for themselves from corporations and businesses while simultaneously banning the TEA from even funding a commonplace political action committee makes a striking contradiction. It speaks volumes about both the venality of our state lawmakers, and their blatant disregard for a huge segment of their constituents.

There is no fairness in this equation, nor was there even any effort at fairness to teachers. Republican lawmakers - Democrats voted against the Republicans' TEA-busting bill - just stuck a finger in the eye of teachers and ordinary citizens who don't have the resources to make big cash gifts. And they opted instead to put the arm on potentially big givers.

PACs are mainstream, and have been for years. Many lawmakers themselves establish their own PACs to allow big givers plenty of room to invest in their legislative decisions. Allowing direct money gifts from corporations to lawmakers, however, dramatically changes the political dynamic for the public interest in Tennessee, never mind what one thinks of the Tennessee Education Association and its now-broken PAC.

Simply put, Tennessee's Legislature has lowered the bar on legal bribery of lawmakers by corporations, which may, by the way, also continue simultaneously to use their PACs. Though the Legislature did reject one lawmaker's proposal to allow direct campaign contributions during the annual legislation session, that's hardly likely to prevent a rich giver's promise of corporate gift in return for a favorable vote on crucial legislation - when the session is over, or before it starts. It's also unfair to shareholders of corporations and businesses that will now deduct political donations from their profits and dividends.

Under the new law, individual corporate donations to politicians will be treated like contributions from political action committees. To add insult to injury, both will be adjusted retroactively for inflation since 1996. Corporate and PAC limits on donations will rise from $5,000 to $7,100 for state House elections, and from $7,500 to $10,700 for state Senate races and for statewide offices.

Now, however, corporate donors can more easily stack contributions to target, or reward, individual legislators. That dismaying prospect will further diminish the voices of ordinary voters and constituents who can't compete with corporate gifts.

Special interest lobbies already spend millions of dollars each year in Nashville, and they already rule the Legislature's agenda. Allowing more corporate money into the mix - an unnecessary response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2010 that lifted federal bans on corporate donations - will just increase big businesses' clout. Rules on health and casualty insurance, business and environmental regulation, and the liquor industry's control over the distribution of wine and spirits outlets, for example, will go more than ever with the flow of money, never mind what individual Tennesseans want.

That doesn't seem to bother Nashville's controlling Republicans one whit. Hamilton County's Rep. Gerald McCormick is openly blasé about it. He said recently that he had wanted to amend the corporate donation bill to restore the ability of lobbyists to make direct contributions to legislative candidates. The Associated Press reported that the bill's sponsor, Rep. Glenn Casada, of Franklin, asked McCormick to wait until next year to do that.

That's a startling sign of the Republicans' big money myopia: Lobbyists were barred from making direct campaign contributions after the FBI's "Tennessee Waltz" sting in 2005 that ended with convictions of five lawmakers for bribery. It will be even harder now to know when a bribe is illegal.