Sunday column: On the crafty use of taxpayer funding for incumbent benefit

The power of incumbency may not be as great as in bygone days, but it is still substantial in providing that threshold ingredient of a successful election campaign — name recognition.

In a statewide race, this is typically a very big thing. In the ongoing campaign for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, for example, virtually everyone who votes knows who Lamar Alexander is. His challengers must spend a lot of time, money and effort just to get their names before voters.

Alexander, as a sitting senator, has a taxpayer-funded staff daily working with citizens in one way or another and, of course, a PR team churning out news releases. In just a few hours one day last week, for example, Alexander issued three news releases for statewide consumption — one calling on the president to “address the adoption crisis in the Congo,” one calling for action to address the “border crisis” and one declaring his support for religious freedom. Each, naturally, can generate what is known in the political trade as “positive free media.”

The flip side, of course, is that being known can make a politician a target — especially with the growing trend of bloggers, national groups, talk show hosts and the like focused on things to be mad about. This is one reason incumbency may not be as formidable now as it was, say, a couple of decades ago when most communication — paid or free — was through mainstream media.

Still, it’s a formidable barrier to any challenger. Alexander probably benefits from the votes of those who might be inclined against him being split by two challengers, Joe Carr and George Flinn, trying to get their names noticed while bashing the incumbent.

Down the ballot at the state legislative race level, the inherent power of incumbency is maybe less significant insofar as name recognition goes. Getting noticed is a lot cheaper at the legislative district level — heck, some locally prominent businessman or officeholder may be as well-known as the local lawmaker — and legislators don’t have nearly as much taxpayer-funded support in their re-election efforts as those guys in Washington.

But they do have the General Assembly’s “constituent communications” accounts. Maybe they’re no match for congressional “franking” privileges for free mass mailings to constituents. Still, it’s nice to have a special fund of taxpayer dollars to buy flags to present prominent groups or voters, send out mailers or, as innovative state Sen. Stacey Campfield has shown, air legislative reports on cable TV.

As pointed out recently by Dick Williams, president of Common Cause in Tennessee and a veteran lobbyist for government transparency causes, you can’t really blame an incumbent for using the money and maybe in crafty fashion — timing a mailing, for example, to come as close to an election day as possible under the rules. In Knoxville, both Campfield and Rep. Steve Hall did that this year with mailings dated July 8, the bare minimum 30 days prior to the Aug. 7 election.

Yes, maybe this does come across to some as tawdry tactics. Perhaps that’s a matter for constituents on the receiving end to judge. Many could use some information — a Vanderbilt University poll recently found that only 44 percent of voters know that Republicans have a majority in the Legislature.

If one accepts that legislators should have some constituent communication money — and that’s not unreasonable — the system still is set up with quirks that make it basically unfair.

One of these is the rule allowing legislators to accumulate a big pile of money, more than $100,000 in a couple of cases. Some never use it; some let a good chunk build up and then use it in an election year as did Campfield (who, by the way, probably didn’t need it for name recognition).

The accumulation of piles of state money — which, needless to say, could be used elsewhere in a lean state budget year with no teacher or state employee pay raises — is pointless. And transfers from legislators without an opponent to legislators with an opponent is contrary to the whole purpose of communication for the transferring legislator.

Both of these things could be resolved with a simple legislative enactment: All unused money in a given year should revert to the state general fund. In other words, use it or lose it.