Some state legislators facing re-election challengers have been overspending their taxpayer-funded accounts for communicating with constituents, covering the shortfall either with political money or transfers from colleagues who are either retiring or face no re-election opposition.
Some examples from a review of the 2012 “postage and printing” accounts:
-State Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, who is not seeking re-election transferred $4,720 from his account to state Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, who faces a general election opponent. Another retiring Democrat, Rep. Bill Harmon of Dunlap, chipped in $1,500 to Windle from his account.
-Five Republican lawmakers with no opposition gave $1,000 each to state Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, who faces a challenge in the Aug. 2 primary. Without the transfers, Montgomery would have lacked enough money in his account to cover a May mail piece carrying the headline, “Rep. Richard Montgomery: Making Job Creation Priority #1.”
-At least a dozen lawmakers had to write checks to the state to either cover a deficit in their taxpayer-funded accounts or avoid one. Only one legislator wrote a personal check — Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, for $62.02 — while the others transferred political campaign funds. The biggest campaign fund check to the state as of Friday came from Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, for $2,833. Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, had tentatively reported a shortfall of $8,653, though the paperwork was still being processed Friday.
Such practices are perfectly legal, according to Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, which oversees the accounts. But some question whether they should be.
“It’s using taxpayer money in a way that gives an advantage to some candidates, the incumbents, over others,” said Dick Williams, president of Common Cause in Tennessee. “There should at least be a serious discussion over whether this should be prohibited.”
“Clearly, this is just another perk of incumbency. It should not be allowed,” said Ben Cunningham, a founder of Tennessee Tax Revolt and Tea Party activist. “It’s been morphed or changed into a campaign slush fund for many of the legislators.”
While the amounts involved are not large by state government spending standards, Cunningham said that “since we trust them with billions of dollars, we can learn from examining how they deal with thousands of dollars.”
The accounts are set up to cover the cost of legislators communicating with constituents and other incidental expenses, said Ridley. The incidentals can include such things as purchasing Tennessee or United States flags to present to constituents or organizations (typically costing $15 each), framing a congratulatory resolution for an honored individual and buying lapel pins or business cards.
But for most lawmakers the biggest expense is sending out newsletters to all households in their legislative district. Rules prohibit the newsletters or brochures from urging recipients to vote for the legislator or otherwise making political statements. Ridley and a representative of either House Speaker Beth Harwell or Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey must preapprove a mailer before it can be sent and Ridley said she sometimes requires a change in wording. For example, she said when a legislator said he would “welcome your support” it could be construed as solicitation of a political contribution.
Typically, the newsletters list the accomplishments of the lawmaker under headlines such as “lowering taxes,” “cutting government waste,” “creating jobs,” or “making it tough on criminals.”
They thus have the same effect as a positive direct mail piece paid for with campaign funds, said Williams.
“They have a political effect. It would be naive to say otherwise,” he said.
While members of the U.S. Congress sometimes draw criticism for use of federal funds in “franking” to send similar newsletters to constituents, the state rules are far more lax than those for federal legislators. Congressmen are prohibited from mailing at taxpayer expense for 90 days prior to an election. In Tennessee, mailings are allowed up to 30 days before an election. Federal rules also prohibit one congressman from transferring his or her money for mailings to a colleague, as commonly occurs in Tennessee.
The blackout on mailers before the Aug. 2 primary election began last week. Two legislators had mailers in the pipeline that Ridley blocked because their paperwork was incomplete and the newsletters could not be mailed before the July 2 cutoff. They were Reps. Andy Holt, R-Dresden; and Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton. (Note: Rep. Tony Shipley was incorrectly listed as not getting a mailer out before the deadline in the original post. His mailer went out June 22.)
The mailers may still be sent after the Aug. 2 election and before the pre-general election blackout, which will begin in October.
The system calls for each state representative to receive $2,016 for his or her constituent communications account each year while each senator gets $6,832. Ridley said the amount of annual allotment has not been increased in at least 10 years.
Unused funds accumulate and are carried over to the next year so an account can build up to relatively large amounts. When a legislator leaves office, his or her account is transferred to the successor to that seat — unless the retiring legislator transfers the money to a colleague before leaving.
Some lawmakers use very little of their money and — thanks in some cases to inheriting funds from their predecessor — have large unused sums. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, has $93,548 banked in his account, records show. Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, had $68,402. Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, who took office just last year, has $30,961 thanks to “inherited” money from former Sen. Jamie Woodson.
Legislators interviewed about either receiving transfers or making them said they are following the law and generally defended the system.
“I basically gave it to my two best friends in the Legislature,” said Tindell. “Over the years, I’ve given away a lot more than I have used.”
Besides the $4,722 to Windle, Tindell transferred $1,000 to Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville. Armstrong, who does not have an opponent to re-election this year, then transferred $1,000 to Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, who does. The transfers left just $100 in Tindell’s account, which will go to his successor elected in November.
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, was among those on the receiving end. He received a transfer of $1,000 from Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol; $500 from House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; $250 from Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parker’s Crossroads; and $1,475 from Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. Ragan also wrote a $300 check from his campaign account.
Ragan said he had used much of his allotment to send congratulatory cards to graduating high school seniors in his district and realized there wasn’t enough money remaining to cover the cost of an end-of-session newsletter. At his request, Ragan said, “the other members very generously transferred money to my account.”
“My inexperience led me to underestimate the expense associated with (the newsletter),” he said, noting postage costs have increased and the account also covers costs of “letterhead paper, notepads and pens.”
McCormick said legislators have been transferring money to colleagues for years and he was happy to comply with requests for $500 each from Ragan and Rep. Julia Hurley, R-Lenoir City, for funds from his account.
“I think communicating with your constituents is a good use of taxpayer money,” McCormick said, though saying he would favor extending the blackout on newsletters for longer than the present 30 days prior to an election.
“It should not be used as part of a campaign strategy,” he said. “Whether it’s legal or not, sometimes you could cross an ethical line.”
Hurley and Ragan both sent their mailers in June.
The only senators receiving transfers from colleagues were Sens. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Steve Southerland, R-Morristown. They got $1,250 each from retiring Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill.
House members with re-election challenges receiving transfers of funds into their accounts from other legislators include Reps. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland; Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta; Linda Elam, R-Mount Juliet; Vance Dennis, R-Savannah; Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby; Jim Gotto, R-Nashville; Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough; Hurley; Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown; Ragan; Montgomery; Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis; David Shepard, D-Dickson; John Tidwell, D-New Johnsonville; Towns; and Windle.
Legislators making transfers to others’ accounts included Reps. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect; Joe Carr, R-Lascasas; Harmon; Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley; Mike Harrison, R-Rogersville; Lundberg; Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram; Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett; McCormick; McDaniel; Niceley; Barrett Rich, R-Somerville; Dennis “Coach” Roach, R-Rutledge; Janis Sontany, D-Nashville; and Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.
Bass, Harmon and Johnson are retiring. Niceley is running for the Senate and will not be able to use his House account at the end of his House term.
Legislators who wrote checks to cover shortfalls in their state postage and printing accounts from campaign accounts include Reps. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia; Glen Casada, R-College Grove; Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville; Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown; Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville; Mark Pody, R-Lebanon; Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro; Ragan; Art Swann, R-Maryville; and Weaver.
Note: This post is a slightly revised version of a story appearing in The News Sentinel.