Sunday Column: TN PACs and their superpowers

Under Tennessee law, it’s illegal for a lobbyist to make a political contribution to a state legislator. But, if the lobbyist sets up a political action committee, gives money to the PAC and then the PAC gives money to the legislator, well, that’s just fine.
And lots of lobbyists do that.
Under Tennessee law, it’s illegal for a human being to give more than $1,400 to candidate for the state House. But a PAC, essentially a legal fiction created by human beings who are legislators, can give up to $7,100.
So Louie Lobbyist, who as a human being is prohibited from giving anything to Larry Legislator, can fill out the PAC creation paperwork, then Louie PAC can give Larry $7,100. The well-funded lobbyist thus has more giving power than your average citizen. Oh, and if Larry has decided to set up a PAC himself (and lots of legislators do), then Louie the individual person can give money to Larry PAC, since Larry PAC is not Larry Legislator, the person. And then Louie PAC can give more to Larry PAC on top of that.
They’re all separate, you see. And PACs have superpowers beyond those of mere mortals.

Louie PAC can give Larry’s personal campaign account $7,100 and then give Larry PAC whatever Louie wanted to put in for that purpose — say, $100,000. Then Larry PAC can pay off some Larry campaign expenses and spread the money around to Larry friends.
Or Louie friends, or Friend PAC. And Friend PAC can… Well, you get the idea. The rules were put in place during a 2006 overhaul of state ethics laws and have been institutionalized since then.
Of course, anybody can play this game, so long as you have the money to start a PAC. The legislator/lobbyist PACs are just a small piece of the overall Tennessee PAC picture, and there are a bunch of penny ante players among the state-registered PAC nonpersons along with an established cadre of special interest big boys (well, PACs have no gender).
But this summer, an interesting twist to the game has been added, maybe inspired by the national phenomena of Super PACs liberated by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a couple of years ago and pouring multiple millions into the presidential race and congressional races as “independent expenditures (IEs).”
Now, IEs have been around awhile in Tennessee and, just like at the national level, they’re not supposed to be coordinated with the candidate who benefits. But they’ve been rather piddling exercises in the last couple of decades— political party PACs paying a few thousand dollars for direct mail pieces, that sort of thing. Now they’re being supersized.
In July, just ahead of last week’s primary elections for legislative seats, we saw Washington money flow into Tennessee in extraordinary amounts by legislative campaign standards.
The National Rifle Association’s Political Victory fund — which set up a Tennessee PAC, then funded it with money sent down from headquarters — put $75,000 toward beating House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart. Most was in the form of IEs for billboards and radio attack ads against Maggart. This had the effect of transforming her challenger, Courtney Rogers, from an underfunded also-ran into a serious competitor.
StudentsFirst, a group that seems very politically astute in promoting its version of education reform, topped that with an independent expenditure by its PAC of more than $100,000 to help Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, through voter “canvassing” — actually hiring folks to go door-to-door on their favorites’ behalf. Another PAC chipped in otherwise to benefit DeBerry to the tune of $140,000. Which makes the $46,000 or so StudentsFirst spent to help Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, pale in comparison.
And then you had a fellow named Andrew Miller, who got national attention by providing more than $260,000 to fund attack ads against U.S. Rep. Diane Black. But he also dabbled in Tennessee legislative races via IE (including Maggart’s race).
There’s also a state law that says PACs cannot give money to a candidate within the period of 10 days before an election. Except IEs are exempt from that and there is no limit to an IE. So a PAC could have spent thousands of dollars after July 23, the last disclosure date, and that won’t be reported for some time.
That probably didn’t happen. But it could and probably will in the future under the new IE game in Tennessee.
Our PACs can be super, too.

Leave a Reply