PACs flood Tennessee General Assembly campaigns with cash

photo People vote at Burk's United Methodist Church in Hixson.

TOP PACSThese are the top 5 political action committees and rankings for local PACs that gave directly to Tennessee lawmakers and legislative candidates between April 1 and June 30:Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First: $105,000Plumbers & Pipefitters Education Committee: $88,400Tennessee Bankers Association PAC: $42,250AT&T Tennessee PAC: $36,500Tennessee Health Care Association PAC: $33,750LOCAL PACSJMS PAC (Check Into Cash founder Allan Jones/Cleveland): $9,875AGL Resources (Chattanooga Gas): $2,950BlueCross Blue Shield of Tennessee: $2,500Tennessee Valley Water Alliance (Tennessee American Water): $2,000Source: Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance. Figures based on candidates' reports

NASHVILLE - Political action committees, businesses and legislative leaders placed $1.4 million in bets on races for the Tennessee General Assembly between April 1 and June 30, campaign finance filings show.

The money is helping fuel the campaigns for the Aug. 2 party primaries and the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Among dozens of groups giving money, the No. 1 position goes to a PAC operated by StudentsFirst, a national education reform advocacy group, according to Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance records.

Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First gave $105,000 directly to candidates, according to candidate filings.

Among other issues, StudentsFirst, founded by former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, supports a limited form of school vouchers, an issue expected to resurface in the Republican-led legislature in 2013.

The group gave mostly to Republican lawmakers or candidates but supported some Democrats.

Coming in at No. 2 was the Plumbers and Pipefitters Education Committee, a labor-union PAC, which contributed $88,400 to Democrats, filings show.

The Tennessee Education Association's Fund for Children & Public Education came in third, with $58,500. Giving was weighted heavily toward Democrats, but some Republicans got checks, as well.

The TEA represents many public school teachers and other educators. It adamantly opposes vouchers, which help pay for children to attend private schools, including those operated by religious organizations.

Rounding out the top 5 list are the Tennessee Bankers Association, with $42,250 in contributions; telecommunications giant AT&T, with $36,500; and the Tennessee Health Care Association (nursing homes) with $33,750, second-quarter filings show.

Dick Williams is chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, a government watchdog group. He says PACs want to "have the ear of those in power."

"I just think any time you got sort of an imbalance of whatever the issue is or whatever the side or whatever the party, it's unfortunate," Williams said Saturday.

While "the best-funded campaign doesn't always win," Williams said, "it's usually a pretty good correlation between funding and winning. It's more opportunity to get your message out. That creates problems."

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Common Cause favors public funding of political campaigns.

Mike Carpenter, director of StudentsFirst in Tennessee, said the group directs support to "folks who've indicated via their voting record that they are reformers already or via a questionnaire [and interview], so this is based on what they've told us they already believe."

"We wanted to make sure we're going to support those folks who make tough decisions and not then leave you hanging," he said.

StudentsFirst supports vouchers, among other changes, Carpenter said, "but our version of vouchers is it has to be carefully crafted. Our preference is to have it limited to low-income families and with the child being in a failing school."

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who previously balked at a voucher bill, created a state task force on the issue that is led by state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffmann. Rhee is Huffman's former wife.

Jerry Winters, with the Tennessee Education Association, said public educators are very concerned about vouchers.

"It's really inconceivable at a time when we're talking about trying to improve public schools and accountability, on one hand, and then taking money from public schools and giving it to religious schools and others," Winters said.

Candidates' stances on vouchers are "critical to the issue of public education. To some degree, it's going to be a subsidy for the wealthy," he said.

Local pacs

Local PACs making contributions include JMS, or Jones Management Services, operated by Check Into Cash payday loan magnate Allan Jones, of Cleveland, Tenn. JMS gave $9,875, according to candidates' filings. It gave $1,000 to Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and $500 to Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, among others.

The Tennessee Valley Water Alliance is run by executives of Tennessee American Water, which operates in Chattanooga. Its PAC gave $2,000 to candidates, including $500 to House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

AGL Resources, which owns Chattanooga Gas, contributed $2,950 to candidates, including $500 to Republican Greg Vital, running in the state Senate District 10 primary.

Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee contributed $3,000, none to local candidates.

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