More legislative candidates running on loan money (6 with $100K or more)

New financial disclosures show at least six legislative candidates personally loaned their campaigns $100,000 or more for primary elections this year, apparently setting a new record for self-financing in races for seats that pay a basic salary of about $20,203 per year.

Five of the six won their party’s primary nominations. The exception was Matt Swallows, who loaned his Senate District 15 campaign $110,000, but lost the Republican nomination to Paul Bailey, who loaned his campaign $101,000.

The other four were seeking House seats and apparently are the first House candidates to crack the $100,000 level in self-financing in recent years. In the past, it appears only Senate candidates — with three times as many constituents as House candidates — have passed that mark.

A fifth House candidate, Jason Emert in Knoxville-based House District 13, loaned his campaign $74,100 and also made $50,209 in direct contributions to his campaign. He lost the Republican nomination to Eddie Smith, who had just $3,000 in loans.

This year’s legislative candidates meeting or exceeding the $100,000 mark in campaigns for the Aug. 4 election were:

– Richard Briggs, a Knox County commissioner and the Republican nominee in state Senate District 7, with loans totaling $132,000. Sen. Stacy Campfield, R-Knoxville, who was defeated by Briggs in the primary, had loaned his campaign $40,000.

– John Ray Clemmons, Democratic nominee in House District 56, loaned his campaign $100,000 at the outset. He defeated Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, in the primary. Odom had loaned his campaign a total of $47,398, but saved enough in his campaign account to repay the loans to himself after the primary loss.

– Martin Daniel, Republican nominee in state House District 18, took out loans totaling $157,600. Daniel defeated Rep. Steve Hall, R-Knoxville, in the primary. Hall had loaned his campaign $10,000.

– Jerry Sexton, Republican nominee in House District 35, loaned his campaign $111,652. He defeated Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Rutledge, who had no loans outstanding.

Campaign finance reform advocates have long criticized the increase in self-financing as creating a situation in which the wealthy have an advantage. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no limits can be placed on the amount of money an individual can donate to his or her own campaign.

But Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, says that does not prohibit states from putting restrictions on loan repayments. During this year’s legislative session, Dunn sponsored a bill that would have put a $100,000 ceiling on using campaign money to repay personal loans. The bill passed the House on a bipartisan 75-12 vote, but died in the Senate.

Under the bill, a legislator could loan a campaign as much as he or she wished, but all money above $100,000 would effectively be treated as a direct donation, eliminating any repayment possibility. Thus a candidate loaning his campaign $250,000 would be able to repay himself $100,000 but not the remaining $150,000, which would be treated as a direct donation.

The cost of running for a legislative seat is becoming prohibitive, Dunn said.

“It’s getting to the point that, if you’re not a millionaire, you don’t have a chance,” he said.

Dunn said he strongly believes putting limits on loan repayments is a good idea, but he’s not sure he will try for passage again after the Senate’s rejection of the measure. Dunn noted that House members can only introduce 15 bills and said, if senators remain unreceptive, he will be reluctant to use one of his bills on a proposal that cannot pass.

In the past session, the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, withdrew the measure from consideration after the House rejected a bill, supported by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, that would have effectively doubled the amount of PAC money that senators can collect in a four-year period.

“I would not call it retaliation. I would call it holding up our end of the bargain,” Ramsey told reporters afterwards.

Dunn said he was open to revising the bill, perhaps by setting different levels for different offices — for example, allowing senators a larger payback amount than representatives and gubernatorial candidates an even bigger figure. The bill this year, as passed by the House, had all candidates at a $100,000 threshold.

Gov. Bill Haslam is still carrying $3.5 million in loans to his 2010 campaign on the books, meaning he could use donations to repay all or part of the loan after his re-election in November. Former Gov. Phill Bredesen carried about $3 million loaned to his campaign in 2002 on the books throughout his eight years as governor, but ultimately wrote it off without any attempt at repayment.