Donation reporting divides Tennessee GOP

photo The Tennessee Capitol

NASHVILLE - Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey acknowledges the failure of his campaign finance bill in the GOP-run House this year is part of the reason he decided to stop joint fundraising with the other chamber.

Speaking after the legislative session ended April 19, the Blountville lawmaker said while the split had "been in the works for a long time, I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that was the straw that broke the camel's back.

"But," Ramsey added, "I think it would have happened anyway."

Among other things, the bill would have eliminated a requirement that corporations report political contributions to candidates as well as political parties and legislative caucuses.

Proponents of lifting the reporting requirement argued it wasn't needed because candidates report their contributions.

Democratic critics charged that canceling the requirement would eliminate an important accounting cross-check and could lead to candidates simply pocketing corporate cash.

Despite the GOP's 70-member supermajority in the House, the bill received just 48 votes, all from Republicans. That was short of the 50 votes necessary for passage.

Twenty-two Republicans voted no, abstained or didn't vote.

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, didn't vote on the bill, but neither did she speak against it on the floor.

"I just, philosophically, just didn't feel supportive of that measure," Harwell told reporters last week. "But I have given everyone fair notice that that was my stand."

Asked to elaborate, Harwell said, "I have trouble with a company being able to give me money and only I am the reporter. So I think there needed to be a proper check that the company would have to report to. ... [If] XYZ Company gave me $10,000, I only reported $5,000, where would the [cross] check be?"

She said the bill's House sponsor, Republican Glen Casada, of Franklin, has indicated he intends to bring it up again next year.

Proponents shrug off concerns about contributions being reported.

But the state's Registry of Election Finance found legislative candidates failed to report about 2.5 percent of contributions made by political action committees and corporations in 2012.

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Regulators discovered 175 PAC or corporate contributions that didn't show up on candidates' disclosure reports.

Candidates are required to correct omissions, on pain of fines. If the correction is timely, and if the omissions don't exceed two per year and are less than $2,000 collectively, the registry takes no action.

Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state's Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, called the 2.5 percent figure for nonreporting low. He attributed discrepancies to honest mistakes by candidates.

"Sometimes candidates make a list of all contributions and one may get left off. Sometimes what happens is that a candidate has lost a deposit slip or something like that so anything that's on that deposit slip may not have gotten reported," Rawlins said.

He couldn't recall any cases of "intentional nonreporting."

The failed bill still would have required political action committees to report contributions.

It also would have more than doubled the amount of money that political parties and legislative caucuses could directly inject into candidates' campaigns.

During April's House floor debate, Casada defended exempting corporations from reporting requirements.

Alluding to a U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance ruling that referred to corporations as people under the First Amendment, Casada noted that individuals and limited liability companies aren't required to file disclosures.

Candidates would still have to disclose contributions, Casada said, later adding, "we're increasing free speech. That's what we're doing."

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, questioned whether not requiring corporations to report contributions could encourage bribery.

"It has happened up here," Turner said, referring to the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting in which four sitting lawmakers and a recently retired one were convicted of accepting bribes.

Democrats also noted that individual campaign donors can give a House candidate no more than $1,500 per election. Corporations can give $7,400.

Dick Williams, chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, last week called reporting by corporations and candidates "just one more way to be sure the reports are accurate."

"Knowing the cross checks are there, the corporations and candidates would be more careful," he said.

"And," Williams added, "if there is an honest or dishonest mistake, it can be caught."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.