State Sen. Stacey Campfield has become the first state legislator to use his taxpayer-funded “constituent communications” account to cover the cost of cable TV ads as well as a more traditional direct mail piece sent to voters on the last day permitted prior to the Aug. 7 election.
A review of communications accounts indicates that legislators who face opposition in this year’s elections, such as Knoxville Republican Campfield, generally are more likely to spend their allocated funds than those who do not. In several cases, legislators who are retiring or who have no opponents have transferred money from their communications accounts to legislators who do have opposition.
Dick Williams, president of Common Cause in Tennessee, said use of the accounts sometimes falls into “a gray area” between informing constituents about legislative activities, which is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, and political promotion, which is not.
“It’s all perfectly legal,” Williams said. “But it can be an advantage to an incumbent, and timing can be a part of that. The closer you get to an election, the more likely that the intent may be electioneering.”
Under state law, each of the state’s 33 senators has $6,832 per year placed into an account for postage, printing and other constituent communications purposes. Each of the 99 state representatives gets $2,016 per year.
A review of state records shows that use of the money varies widely.
Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, rarely uses the account and had accumulated a balance of $105,230 as of Thursday. But several legislators overspent their accounts and had to reimburse the state, typically with checks written on their campaign accounts.
Campfield had allowed his balance to accumulate to $25,901 before this year’s $6,832 was added, records show.
He began airing “legislative updates” on Comcast cable TV in February and continued them into May. Altogether, 11 updates were aired at costs ranging from $819 to $2,264. The total billed to the account for the ads was $16,666.
The senator said cable TV is actually less expensive than large-scale mailings to constituents because “the market is changing and the technology is changing.” The Legislature now has an office where legislators can produce a video in “a matter of minutes,” he said, and avoid printing costs.
The script for Campfield’s last TV update, billed to his account May 20, says:
“Hello, I’m Sen. Stacey Campfield and this is your legislative update. This year, Tennessee was recognized nationally for many great strides forward. We’re number one in education growth. Number two least taxed. Number three most wanted to visit. Number two for best roads and infrastructure. Number four best state for business. And number three in overall state freedom.
“While not perfect, we are quickly becoming that shining city on the hill that others look up to. If you have any questions on this you can contact me at the number or address listed below.”
Each script, whether for mailing or TV airing, must be approved in advance by Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration. She said the information need not refer to legislative activity in any specific manner.
“The statute says ‘constituent communication,’ ” Ridley said. “In that, he is communicating with constituents. It doesn’t have to be about legislation.”
Ridley also screens the communications for any political references, which are prohibited. And she makes sure there are no taxpayer-paid mailings for 30 days prior to an election.
On that point, Campfield contacted her and was advised that the last date a communication could be sent prior to the Aug. 7 election was July 8. The mailing had to be postmarked on that date or earlier.
Campfield said he had intended the direct-mail “legislative update” to go out earlier, but there was a problem getting it printed that caused some delay. According to constituents contacting the News Sentinel, it arrived in Knoxville mailboxes starting July 10-12. (Note: Front of the mailer is HERE.)
The senator has not yet submitted the bill for that mailing. He had $13,209 in his account as of Wednesday, which Campfield said would be “way more” than enough to cover the cost, though he did not have an exact figure when interviewed.
Some mailings do cost more than that, but most are considerably less.
For example, Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, another incumbent facing opposition in the August primary, spent $14,833 on a mailing headlined “Report for the People” in late June. Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, did a late June mailer at a cost of $2,992.
Johnson, unopposed in the primary but targeted by Republicans for defeat in November, was among legislators benefiting from transfers into her account by other lawmakers. Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, transferred $1,300 into Johnson’s account, while House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Rep. JoAnn Favors, D-Chattanooga, transferred $1,000 each for a total of $3,300. Stewart, Fitzhugh and Favors are unopposed in their elections this year.
Fitzhugh also transferred $1,000 to Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, who has November opposition. Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, sent Jernigan another $500 and Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, $200.
Some other transfers:
n State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who is running for the U.S. Senate instead of reelection, transferred $500 each from his account to Reps. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, and Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan. The four are among 20 state legislators who have endorsed his Senate campaign. Shipley and Wirgau have opponents this year; Butt and Sanderson do not.
n Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, received $4,000 in transfers from Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, $1,500 from Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, and $500 from Rep. Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville for a total of $6,000. Ragan is facing a challenge from Catlin Nolan in the Aug. 7 primary and has done two mailers this year, one costing $5,375 and another at $3,630.
Johnson and Womick have no opponents this year. Floyd, who is not seeking reelection, also transferred $300 to Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, who has a primary challenger.
n Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach, R-Rutledge, who is challenged in the Aug. 7 primary, received $2,705 in transfers from Rep. Michael Harrison, R-Rogersville, who has no opposition.
-House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Nashville, who is retiring from the Legislature, transferred $3,400 from his account to Rep. David Shepard, D-Dickson, who faces a Republican opponent in November.
Under account rules, if a retiring legislator does not transfer his or her account money before leaving office, the entire balance goes to the legislator next elected to fill the seat. That is a factor in some legislators, such as Watson, accumulating large balances.
In most cases, the transferred monies let the recipient legislator cover the cost of a mailings that would have otherwise put him or her in the red on the “constituent communications” accounts. Several legislators, including some without opponents this year, also had to cover overspending in their accounts by writing a check to the state.
Legislators can also the fund to cover costs for items such as state and American flags presented to schools or civic groups, pens, business cards, framing photographs or legislative resolutions and similar things.
Lawmakers reimbursing the state for excess expenditures from the accounts this year were Reps. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville; Joshua Evans, R-Greenbrier; Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough; Art Swann, R-Maryville; Joe Towns, D-Memphis.
The largest reimbursement check was from Hill, for $3,274, though his account still showed a $46.05 deficit on Wednesday. Three other legislators officially had deficits – Ragan $303.77; Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, $42.14, and retiring Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, $10.21.
Campfield compared his use of the state accounts to U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr.’s use of his office to provide regular taxpayer-funded newsletters from Washington to constituents.
“It’s a good way for a congressman or a state representative to get feedback from constituents on what he’s doing,” said Campfield. “Nothing was political. It was all approved by the lieutenant governor’s office and Connie Ridley.”
Bonnie Brezina, campaign manager for Knox County Commissioner Richard Briggs, the incumbent’s primary opponent, disagreed. She said Campfield’s handling of his account is “the latest in a long pattern of unethical behavior” by the senator, who is “continuing to put his own selfish interests above the taxpayer.”