Tennessee political action committees reached record levels in both number and in handing out contributions last year as the Legislature’s new Republican supermajority was elected, according to a report by the Registry of Election Finance.
A total of 611 PACs registered to donate to Tennessee’s state-level campaigns for 2012 and gave a total of $8,185,652 in contributions, almost all to candidates running for the state Legislature, the Registry said in its annual report.
The PACs spent another $2,003,603 in “independent expenditures,” which do not go directly to a campaign but are spent independently to help elect or defeat a legislative candidate. Typically, most is money spent on attack advertising.
That compares to 540 PACs registered in 2010 and making direct donations to candidates totaling $6,777,264 plus independent expenditures totaling $1,995,503. In 2010, there was also a gubernatorial election underway – unlike 2012 – and PACs were giving more money to Gov. Bill Haslam and other candidates. In 2012, only a couple of PACs donated early to Haslam’s 2014 re-election fund.
PACs thus spent a total of about $10.2 million in 2012 trying to influence campaigns compared to $8.9 million in 2010.
(Note: The Registry 2012 report is HERE; a list of all registered 2012 PACs and their donations, HERE.)
PAC contributions are always higher in election years, but incumbent lawmakers like to build up their accounts in non-election years – seeing this as a means of deterring prospective challengers – and PACs are happy to help.
In 2011, the 540 registered PACs donated $2,933,527 directly to candidate campaign accounts with just $14,671 in independent expenditures. In 2009, direct donations by 483 registered PACs totaled $2,697,970 with $148,517 in independent expenditures, according to Registry figures.
State law was revised last year to allow direct corporate contributions to candidates for the first time. Under the new law, corporations are treated as if they were PACs under reporting requirements and the Registry report includes corporate contributions as part of the PAC picture, said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.
But Rawlins said the inclusion of corporations is likely only a small factor in the increasing PAC numbers and contributions because only a handful of corporations so far have taken advantage of the new law. While the increase from 2010 to 2012 is bigger than usual, there has been an overall trend in PAC proliferation since the Registry started keeping records in 1996.
” The number of registered PACs has increased almost 50% in the last 10 years,” says the Registry report.
In 2002, total PAC contributions were also at about half the 2012 level, about $5.1 million.
“It’s just a continuation of the trend,” said Williams. “Everything kind of gets more expensive… and things seem to have gotten somewhat more partisan.”
Some factors that may be involved in the increasing number of PACs:
–The growing popularity of “leadership PACs,” also known as “personal PACs.” These are set up by an individual – including Haslam and several legislative leaders in Tennessee – to take money from traditional special interest PACs and individuals, then distribute it to legislative candidates.
–Williams and Rawlins said one factor may simply be that more people are becoming politically active with their money. Since Republicans gained control of the Legislature, there have been some new PACs that focus mostly on GOP primaries with the goal of electing more conservative Republicans – Truth Matters PAC, for example, which was formed last year and spent more than $100,000.
–National groups setting up Tennessee PACs and/or increasing their Tennessee activities. One such new player, StudentsFirst, a national education reform organization, made $191,000 in direct donations last year.
–Since a 2006 law banned direct contributions to candidates by lobbyists, many lobbyist groups have set up PACs that can still legally give to legislative candidates though an individual lobbyinst cannot. Topping 2012 contributions by such groups is Tennessee First, formed by the McMahan and Winstead lobbying firm with direct donations of $106,775.
The top PAC in direct donations to candidates in 2012 was the Senate Republican Caucus with almost $400,000 in contributions to Senate candidates. Much of its funding came from PACs and those PACs’ donations to the caucus, another PAC, do not count as a donation to a candidate.
Second highest PAC donor was the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union with $237,300. PACs formed by teachers, bankers, state employees, physicians, lawyers and realtors were also among the top 20 PACs in direct donations, along with companies such as Federal Express and AT&T and organizations representing the state’s nursing homes, liquor wholesalers and road builders.
Here’s a list of the top 20 Tennessee PACs in direct donations to candidates during 2012:
Senate Republican Caucus $399,359
Plumbers and Pipefitters Union $237,300
Tennessee Democratic Party $260,409
Tennessee Education Association $226,850
Tennessee Bankers Association $185,700
Tennessee Republican Party $173,199
State Employees Association $142,900
Tennessee Medical Association $139,000
Trial Lawyers Association $130,500
House Republican Caucus $127,117
Federal Express $121,366
Tennessee Realtors $120,900
Truth Matters (conservative Republicans) $110,400
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s PAC – $107,700
Tennessee First (McMahan & Winstead lobbyist firm) $106,775
THCA (nursing homes) $100,850
Wine & Spirits Wholesalers $100,100
Highway Contractors (road builders) $98,752