NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam wants legislators to lower "partisan barriers" in the name of education reform, but he and first lady Crissy Haslam are hosting a big March 31 fundraiser for the Tennessee Republican Party.
According to a copy of an event ticket, obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, political high rollers will shell out $3,000 to $25,000 for two to attend the "Leadership Forum 2011" and Statesmen's Dinner.
The $25,000 gets two participants into a smaller "Governor's Circle Roundtable" with Haslam and bestows "priority seating and benefits" at the two other events. Roundtable participants get to ask the governor questions.
The fundraiser will be held in the executive residence's Conservation Hall, which Republican leaders attacked as wasteful spending when Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen was having it built.
State law bans fundraising by legislators while the General Assembly is in session. It was passed years ago to address public perceptions that lawmakers were "shaking down" special interests with business directly before them.
But according to state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Drew Rawlins, there is a difference between individuals' campaigns and the state party.
"The party can raise money for the party as long as it's not going to candidates, to support or oppose candidates," he said. "They can raise it for getting out the vote ... and for just normal party activities."
Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said, "I would still think in the spirit of the law that they shouldn't be doing this during the session - at our residence, being the Tennessee residence."
He also found it ironic that Haslam, who over the weekend called for more bipartisan cooperation, is hosting the event in a few weeks.
Haslam's press office referred questions to the state party. State GOP Political Director Adam Nickas said, "Gov. Haslam and the first lady are hosting a fundraiser for the Tennessee Republican Party, which is not unusual. He's not making the active phone calls. All the money goes to the party."
During Bredesen's administration, top Republicans and wealthy allies who lived near the residence repeatedly attacked construction of the underground Conservation Hall, deriding it alternately as a "bunker," a "ballroom" and a "party room."
Nickas defended its use for Haslam's event.
"Well look, it was already paid for," he said. "It was already built."
U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both R-Tenn., are listed on the invitation as special guests.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.