Legislator Mailing Accounts: Some Overspend, Some Build Fat Surplus, Some Help Friends

While four legislators have overspent their taxpayer-funded “constituent communications” accounts as their terms in the 107th General Assembly wind to a close, one lawmaker will be sitting on a $100,000 when the 108th General Assembly begins on election day, a review of records shows.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, ran up the biggest deficit with an account that was $6,023 in the red. The shortfall would have been larger had not state Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, who is giving up his Senate seat to run for Congress, transferred $2,652 from his account to Kyle’s account.
Smaller amounts are owed to the state by Reps. Julia Hurley, R-Lenoir City, ($47.34); Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, ($1,406), and Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough ($162.92).
The four lawmakers with deficits all faced stiff re-election challenges in primaries this year. Kyle won his race, defeating Sen. Beverley Marrero in the August Democratic primary in a contest set up by legislative redistricting. Because he has no general election opponent, his account will get a fresh infusion of state funds — $6,832, to be precise — when his new term officially begins the day after the Nov. 6 election.

Ford, Kernell and Hurley, on the other hand, lost to challengers in their primaries and will cease being legislators on election day. That means Connie Ridley, director of the Legislative Office of Administration, will be in touch with them to arrange a payment to the state to cover the deficit. Ridley said they can either write a check or arrange for another legislator to transfer funds from his or her account.
The review of “constituent communications” accounts of all 99 current representatives and 33 senators shows a striking general trend — lawmakers facing re-election opponents this year spent lots more than legislators who did not.
In several cases, opposed lawmakers got transfers from unopposed or retiring legislators to bolster their accounts and/or avoid running up deficits. In other cases, lawmakers wrote checks from their campaign accounts to cover shortages in their taxpayer-funded accounts. A few legislators with opposition did both — collecting transfer money and still writing campaign fund checks to keep their taxpayer-funded account from running short.
The biggest surplus held by a sitting legislator is $93,183 parked in the account of Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who was not up for election this year and who was unopposed in 2010. His total will go past the $100,000 mark when the annual state funding of $6,832 is put into his account after election day.
A substantial chunk of Watson’s surplus was “inherited” from his predecessors in the Senate District 10 seat. Under rules for the accounts, anything left in a lawmaker’s account when he or she leaves office is passed on to his or her successor.
“I try to be a very good steward of the resources provided to me,” said Watson. “I have not, in the past, used a lot of that money for the things others use it for. I guess I’m just very frugal.”
Asked why he had not transferred any of the money to other lawmakers, he replied, “Nobody ever asked me.” He said that, if asked and given “a valid reason,” he might consider such a request.
Some legislators who are not seeking re-election have transferred portions of their account money to others rather than leave it for their successor in office.
In addition to helping lower Kyle’s deficit, Stewart sent $3,000 to Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Clarksville, who is engaged in a heated battle for re-election that has included criticism from Republicans of Barnes’ using about $15,000 from his account to pay for direct mail reports on his legislative accomplishments to constituents. A Senate Republican Caucus spokesman told the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle that it was unfair for an incumbent to use such funding to drive up name recognition when non-incumbents must spend their own money.
Kyle noted that Republicans, who control a majority of legislative seats, are now more often than Democrats the incumbents who benefit from constituent communications accounts — an assertion that the review of records indicates is correct. The biggest single expenditure on a mailer this year was $31,603 by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro.
Kyle also said the accounts serve a worthy purpose, though they are occasionally criticized.
“Those who want to criticize you for political purposes will criticize you for using the money, but then, if you don’t use it, they’ll criticize you for not communicating with or listening to your constituents,” said Kyle, D-Memphis, the Senate minority leader.
Retiring Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, transferred $2,000 to Barnes, but still had more than $16,000 left in his account for his successor as of last week. Retiring Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill, has just $216 left in his account after transferring $2,500 to two other Republican senators and spending more than $14,000 on a mailer earlier this year.
Several House members who will not be returning next session transferred funds to other legislators.
Those who voluntarily retired after making transfers include Reps. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, who leaves a balance of $86 in his account; Mike McDonald, D-Gallatin, who leaves a balance of $8,220; House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who leaves $2,160; Phillip Johnson, R-Peagram, who leaves $400; Rep. Janis Sontany, D-Nashville, who leaves $849; and Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, who leaves a balance of $100.
Besides Ford and Hurley, some primary election losers are leaving little for their successors, who will likely be the primary victors.
Rep. Linda Elam, R-Mount Juliet, who had her account bolstered with thousands of dollars in transfers from fellow incumbent Republicans prior to the election, transferred $250 to Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, after she lost. That leaves Susan Lynn, who defeated Elam, with $70.58, according to the last report.
Similarly, Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, who received an infusion of transferred funds from other Republican lawmakers before the primary and spent most of it, transferred $500 to Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, afterward. Still, Montgomery will leave $1,426 for Dale Carr, who defeated him in the primary.
Rep. Don Miller, R-Morristown, did not transfer any money but still leaves just $128 in his account after losing in the primary.
The largest amounts being left to the winner of a primary by the loser is $5,996 that will go to Harold Love Jr., who defeated Rep. Mary Pruitt, D-Nashville, based on accounts as they stood last week. The biggest balance left by a voluntarily retiring lawmaker is $21,787 in the account of Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden.
Departing legislators can still spend — or transfer — from their accounts up to election day, meaning the figures could change.
House members get $2,016 placed in their accounts each year, considerably less senators’ $6,832 annual allotment. That may explain why representatives are more likely to run short than senators.
Legislators who wrote checks to avoid a negative balance in their accounts this year include Reps. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland; Shelia Butt, R-Columbia; Glen Casada, R-College Grove; Joshua Evans, R-Greenbrier; Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville; Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro; Art Swann, R-Maryville; Eric Watson, R-Cleveland; and Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster.
Besides Barnes and Kyle, senators receiving transfers into their accounts from colleagues this year include Sens. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Steve Southerland, R-Morristown.
House members receiving transfers from colleagues, beyond those already mentioned, include Reps. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville; Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland; Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta; Vance Dennis, R-Savannah; Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby; Jim Gotto, R-Nashville; Hurley; Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown; John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge; David Shepard, D-Dickson; Mike Stewart, D-Nashville; John Tidwell, D-New Johnsonville; Joe Towns, D-Memphis; and John Mark Windle, D-Livingston.

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