Campaign cash, organization vary widely on constitutional amendments

The campaigns for and against passage of four Tennessee constitutional amendments proposed on the November ballot vary widely in their goals, financing and organization. What they have in common is a constitutional provision that could impact their chances of passage.

Amendment 1, which would effectively overturn a state Supreme Court decision and give the General Assembly more authority to impose restrictions on abortion, has organized committees with substantial funding on both sides.

The Yes on 1 Ballot Committee, leading the push for passage, began fundraising last year with an event hosted by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey for a non-profit group called Yes on 1, Inc.

The Ballot Committee, according to reports filed with the Registry of Election Finance in July, had collected about $300,000 and spent about $100,000. But that doesn’t count what is apparently more than $200,000 held in the non-profit fundraising group, which is not required to disclose its donors.

Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right To Life, has said the group hopes to raise $2.5 million for the pro-passage campaign. Direct donors to the campaign committee that have been disclosed include several local Right to Life affiliates, churches and politicians including Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe.

The Vote No on One Tennessee campaign committee, set up to oppose passage, had reported contributions totaling more than $350,000 as of July 1 with only about $10,000 in spending. Most of the money came from Planned Parenthood affiliates, including more than $190,000 from Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood affiliates in California, Massachusetts, Seattle and elsewhere gave lesser amounts.

All amendment campaign committees must file updated financial disclosures later this month.

Appointments, tax, games on ballot

Amendment 2 up for a vote Nov. 4 would revise the state Constitution to make clear that the governor can appoint the state’s top judges without a partisan popular election, subject to confirmation by the Legislature and a retention election for those seeking new terms.

In campaign finance, the Vote Yes on 2 campaign committee reported in July raising more than $400,000 and spending about $50,000. The opposing Vote No on 2 committee, in stark contrast, reported zero contributions and expenditures at the time. That was shortly after the group got started, and a spokesman says fundraising is under way although there’s no hope of “even coming close” to proponents’ fundraising.

The biggest contribution to Yes on 2 was $175,000 from the Tennessee Business Partnership, a non-profit set up earlier this year to promote state public policy initiatives deemed favorable to business interests. Law firms and lawyers accounted for most other donations to Yes on 2.

Amendment 3 would prohibit a state income tax in Tennessee. At the time of the July reporting, campaigning was low-key on both sides. Yes on 3 PAC, supporting passage, reported $10,000 in donations and $1,649 in spending, although last week it began a statewide promotional effort that indicates more money is in the pipeline.

Citizens for Fiscal Sanity, the campaign committee opposing Amendment 3, reported less than $2,000 in contributions and $85 in expenditures.

Amendment 4 would authorize veterans groups to hold fundraising events that involve lottery-like games of chance, just as other charitable organizations can do now, subject to the Legislature’s approval each year. No campaign organizations have registered to either support or oppose the proposed amendment, though the Republican state legislators who pushed the proposal — Sen. Rusty Crowe of Johnson City and Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge — say they anticipate informal education efforts among veterans organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans.

Without an organized campaign to explain the amendment — and wording on the ballot that lacks mention of veterans, only the Internal Revenue Service Section 501 ( c ) 19 that is legally involved — Amendment 4 may especially be vulnerable to failure because of a quirk of the state constitution.

BALLOT HURDLE

The provision requires that constitutional amendments be approved by a majority of those voting in the gubernatorial election. Thus, if 2 million people vote in the gubernatorial election, a constitutional amendment must receive at least 1,000,001 votes to be approved. If 999,999 vote for it and no one votes no, it still would fail.

As a result of that requirement, advocates for and against an amendment are quietly counseling that this be taken into consideration by dedicated supporters. If a voter supports an amendment, he or she can vote yes on the amendment and skip the governor’s race, thus lowering the threshold for amendment passage based on the gubernatorial election turnout.

In effect, the vote for an amendment while ignoring the governor’s race amounts to two votes.

On the flip side, those opposing passage of an amendment are being urged to make sure they cast a ballot in the governor’s race, thus raising the threshold required for approval of the amendment.

In the past, constitutional amendments have failed simply because of voter drop-off. Voters didn’t cast a ballot one way or the other on a proposed amendment, thus not meeting the gubernatorial election threshold.