Perhaps on a bipartisan basis, state legislators are moving toward repealing Tennessee’s limits on political campaign contributions while requiring more rapid and complete disclosure.
Rep. Glen Casada, elected House Republican Caucus chairman last week, said Friday that concept is at the core of a “comprehensive” revision of state campaign finance law that he and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron hope to introduce in the 108th General Assembly that convenes Jan. 8.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions, along with the ever-increasing expense of campaigns, mean that contribution limits are no longer needed or desirable, said Casada.
“A campaign is, in essence, getting your message out,” he said. “That is free speech and free speech costs money.”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, who was reelected to his post last week, told reporters that he has decided the time has come to “re-think” past support of campaign contribution limits because they are no longer effective.
“I’m coming around to that (repeal of limits),” Kyle said. “What we’ve found is that Republicans are so good at circumventing the law, why go through the effort?”
Dick Williams, president of Common Cause in Tennessee, was a staunch advocate of campaign contribution limits when they were first enacted at the state level in the 1990s. Today, however, Williams said he has “almost come to the conclusion” that ending limits, provided fuller disclosure of money sources is required, would be appropriate.
Already, the law allows unlimited “independent expenditures” to promote or oppose a candidate by corporations, unions, political action committees or individuals. But there are limits on direct donations to a candidate’s campaign.
The limit for an individual donation is $1,400 per election in state legislative races. Since the primary and general election are counted separately, that means a maximum of $2,800 in an election cycle. The individual limit in a gubernatorial election is $3,600, or $7,200 in a primary and general election combined.
PACs have higher limits — $7,100 per election for a state House candidate and $10,700 per election for a state Senate candidate or a gubernatorial election.
As a practical matter, however, wealthy individuals or organizations can legally funnel much larger amounts to campaigns after reaching the limits by giving money instead to multiple PACs. And two or more people can create a new PAC, giving it unlimited money that can then be distributed to campaigns. Each PAC has a separate limit.
“Good lawyers have looked at the laws and know you can create a PAC on a moment’s notice,” said Kyle.
Former state Sen. Bob Rochelle, who last week was named to the Registry of Election Finance board that is responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws, had advocated an end to contribution limits as a senator. He still does, though saying that as a Registry member he will enforce whatever laws are in effect.
“Political money is like water. It flows downhill to politicians,” Rochelle said in an interview. “When you put a limit on how much a person can give a candidate, the money flows to a PAC, or a super PAC or a political party and then it comes back to the candidate.”
In many situations, he said, the public then does not know the origin of the money making its way to a candidate through a PAC or party. The public interest would be better served by “full and more frequent disclosure” of the money source, he said.
Casada voiced a similar opinion, as did Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey earlier this year.
Casada said the idea would be to require more prompt disclosure. Currently, candidates and PACs file disclosure reports at various times — mostly on a quarterly basis in an election year. Casada said he has not decided “where to draw the line” on disclosure timing.
It would probably be overly burdensome, he said, to require a politician receiving a small check one day to disclose it the next. Williams said substantial contributions — perhaps $5,000, “off the top of my head” — should be disclosed within a short time frame, perhaps 48 hours. Smaller donations could still be listed on periodic reports.
Some national PACs now operate Tennessee-level subsidiary PACs that do not disclose the original source of funds. Their disclosure will simply state that the national-level PAC sent the money — often in seven-figure amounts — to the Tennessee PAC, which then reports only the names of candidates receiving the money