A lobbyist’s email was sent under state Rep. Bob Ramsey’s name, using his legislative office computer, to urge that all state representatives vote against a bill on taxing roll-your-own cigarettes, those involved said Tuesday.
The episode Monday led Ramsey, chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee, to send a follow-up message to colleagues saying the email “was sent out from my e-mail account without my knowledge” and “in no way reflects my opinion of the matter.”
It also led House Speaker Beth Harwell to speak with Ramsey, his assistant, Angela Brown, and lobbyist Dan Haskell.
“I heard his (Haskell’s) side of the story,” Harwell said. “I talked to Rep. Ramsey and his assistant and made it clear that legislative equipment and email are for legislative staff and our members only.”
The bill in question (HB1054) comes up for its first vote in the House Finance Subcommittee today. It is sponsored by Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, in the House.
The measure, launched late in the legislative session, was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on a 7-3 vote Tuesday after proponents argued that it will “level the playing field” on taxes between regular cigarette retailers and shops that let customers roll their own cigarettes on machines using tobacco taxed at a lower rate.
Haskell, a veteran contract lobbyist at the Legislature, has among his clients this year RYO Machine, LLC, a manufacturer of roll-your-own cigarette machines. He, Ramsey and Brown said Tuesday in separate interviews that Haskell stopped by Ramsey’s office Monday afternoon and the following ensued:
Haskell told Brown that he wanted to send an email to legislators, having forgotten to do so earlier and, according to Haskell, “she offered to save me from going back to the office.” The lobbyist sat down, typed out a message that said:
“This is a brief position paper in opposition to HB1054 by McDaniel. This bill is intended to raise taxes to an extent that it puts a number of Tennessee businesses out of business, costing state (sic) the taxes they now pay and ending employment for several hundred Tennesseans. We appreciate your joining us in opposing it.”
The “position paper,” a critique of the bill written by opponents, was provided as an attachment. To legislators receiving the email, it arrived showing as sent by “Bob Ramsey” to “House members” with a subject line “FW: One-pager for all members.”
The message typed by Haskell follows.
Haskell said Brown actually sent the message, though he acknowledged typing the message.
Ramsey said he had always told his staff to “be helpful to citizens and lobbyists” and did not fault Brown or, for that matter, Haskell. Still, Ramsey said he was “totally surprised” when fellow legislators began asking him about the email or thanking him for it.
“I certainly wouldn’t approve of what he did,” he said. “(But) I’m not in any way reacting in a negative manner.”
Ramsey said he also spoke with McDaniel, sponsor of the bill, who was “understandably upset” and suggested the follow-up email from Ramsey.
Ramsey said no one had lobbied him on the bill and, in fact, he was leaning toward supporting the measure after hearing from convenience store operators in Blount County who thought it would mean “fair taxes” between them and roll-your-own operators.
Note: A copy of a position paper distributed by RYO is available by clicking on this link:RYO Information Sheet.pdf