Collected TNN reports on out-of-state influence — Education reformers, Americans for Prosperity, ALEC, NRA

(Note: Below are excerpts and links to a package of articles on influence of groups based outside the state on in-state policy that was produced by Tennessee’s four largest news organizations — The Commercial Appeal, The Tennessean, The Knoxville News Sentinel and The Chattanooga Times Free Press — collaborating at the Tennessee News Network. The overview story is posted in full HERE.)

Pro-vouncher lobby, including American Federation for Children and StudentsFirst, lost again in 2015 Legislature
From David Boucher of The Tennessean:
“Unfortunately, (the voucher) bill was stalled for a number of reasons. Lobbying groups representing district school boards, for instance, claimed budgetary concerns while groups like ours pointed to school choice having a positive educational impact for students,” said Ted Boyatt, spokesman for an organization called Students First.

California-based Students First…spent as much as $213,907 on lobbying in 2014, with its political action committee spending $573,917 during the two years leading up to the 2014 election, according to state finance records.

Washington, D.C.-based Tennessee Federation for Children, the state chapter of the American Federation for Children, spent as much as $150,000 on lobbying in 2014 and $606,345 during the 2014 campaign cycle, according to campaign finance records.

It didn’t work. One Democrat, former Rep. Gloria Johnson, was ousted, but other Democrat targets — including Nashville Reps. Darren Jernigan and Jason Powell — survived campaign onslaughts from outside groups.

Although Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the Tennessee Federation for Children, argued the money helped elect “school choice” candidates, the voucher bill continues to die in a House finance subcommittee.

“Our public education system is the bedrock of our communities and their success and it is not for sale,” said Lyn Hoyt, a spokeswoman for Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, a group advocating against vouchers. “Citizens see through a lot of this paid PR agenda to sway public opinion if they are experiencing the changes in the system. The changes have been so swift and painful, trust is gone.”

Schultz and Boyatt disagree. Schultz’s organization released a poll earlier this year that it believes shows increasing public support for vouchers. Both groups have advocated for vouchers for three years, and they both believe the bill is gaining some traction at the state Capitol.

“I think our organization has made a positive impact in raising the profile of this issue and advancing the debate on school choice. Progress on such an important issue doesn’t happen overnight, and each year has been more successful than the last,” Boyatt said.

The more successful groups advocated against a program that drains money from public schools and doesn’t work, said Tennessee Education Association spokesman Jim Wrye.

The TEA, one of the largest teachers unions in the state, opposes vouchers. Although the union lost considerable power when collective bargaining rights were nixed in Tennessee, it still spent big: $530,130 by its political action committee in the 2014 election cycle, and as much as $175,000 in lobbying in 2014, according to state campaign finance records.

“TEA was the key to defeating vouchers. All public education groups rallied to defeat the measure, but the political strength came from the members of TEA,” Wrye said in a statement.

Americans for Prosperity claims victory in Insure TN defeat
From Andy Sher of the Times-Free Press:
Americans for Prosperity made defeat of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal its top Tennessee priority in the 2015 legislative session, airing radio ads attacking legislators who were deemed as supportive of the measure likened to “Obamacare.”

Longtime political consultant Tom Ingram, Haslam’s top political adviser, said what happened is also Exhibit A for outside groups’ growing influence on state politics and state government.

“To some degree the same thing is going on nationwide,” said Ingram, who blames the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that removed restrictions on independent political campaign spending by nonprofit organizations and corporations.

Groups like AFP are working both political campaigns and lobbying in a hand-in-glove approach, according to Ingram. The source of their money is often secret. They spend huge sums. And that’s legal.

“They [AFP] have a full-time staff, they’ve poured in a lot of money indirectly and directly,” said Ingram, who was registered to lobby last session for a pro-Insure Tennessee business group. “It’s largely to push whatever agenda they have and influence, frankly, our elected officials, our issues, disproportionately more than any of us as individual voters can.”

“I find something out of whack about that,” Ingram added.

AFP’s Tennessee Director Andrew Ogles doesn’t. The group, he said, is often focused on pushing back against the federal government’s intrusion into state affairs in areas ranging from health care to education. AFP presses what it considers to be free-market issues as well, he said.

“Our founding fathers wanted the states to be laboratories of solution and, again, that’s why we’ve kind of pushed back on the federal overreach,” Ogles said.

Comparing the political arena to a marketplace, Ogles said, “our job is to … increase public discussion and debate.”

Without groups like AFP, he said, “we just trust that what’s going on at the state Capitol is in our best interest. And sometimes it’s not.”

The group, Ogles said, has some 40,000 Tennessee members. That’s based on people who receive AFP’s regular newsletter, he said.

…”Hell yes,” Ingram, who has worked in Republican politics for four decades, said when asked whether Republicans feel intimidated by AFP. “Even if they’re not intimidated, they’re aggravated by it.”

Tennessee a leader in American Legislative Exchange Council
From Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal:
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro briefed told colleagues that 22 Tennessee legislators attended the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual “policy summit” in Washington last fall– the most from any state.

ALEC is a conservative policy organization promoting “limited government, free markets, federalism” and whose membership includes state lawmakers and corporate representatives from across the country. With Republicans in full control of 30 state legislatures, ALEC now rivals the centrist, nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures in attendance at its meetings.

And intense criticism has accompanied that rise in power. Several national groups, from centrist to liberal, including the public interest group Common Cause, have attacked ALEC’s blend of ideology, corporate partnership and attempts to pass legislation of its own.

“They make their decisions based on politics and contributions rather than on best practices or best solutions to problems,” Tennessee State Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, said when he quit ALEC three years ago. “Their agenda has become very self-serving and very partisan … It’s extremist.”

…Ketron told his caucus colleagues that former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke to several of the ALEC attendees about the GOP victories of 2014 and how to sustain them. “Newt asked us to come back and challenge each and every one of you: We can’t continue doing business the way we’re doing it. Newt said that we’re still conducting and running government the way we did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We can’t continue building brick and mortar and expanding the size of government. We’ve got to be thinking smart and how do we compress it down.”

Ketron also said that Tennesseans were front and center at the ALEC conference. “We’re doing things right in Tennessee and they’re looking at us. From bills to anything we’re doing in Tennessee, they want to follow us.”

Indeed, as Republicans have enlarged their majorities in the Tennessee General Assembly, ALEC has become more ingrained in the culture of the legislature and its legislation. Eighteen Tennessee lawmakers billed just over $53,000 to taxpayers to attend ALEC conferences in 2014, not counting lawmakers who traveled on ALEC “scholarships” or other means, according expense records on the legislature’s website.

…State Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, who is on ALEC’s 30-member board of directors, said that despite its opposition to Obamacare, “ALEC was not involved” in the successful effort to defeat Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan, an alternative Medicaid expansion plan funded through the Affordable Care Act that would make coverage available to up to 280,000 uninsured working Tennesseans.

“There were some groups that were involved with ALEC that were active in it but … as far as ALEC coming down here and lobbying things, they haven’t. They’ve gotten a bad rap from some of the left-wing groups, which is unfortunate.

“Overall, we develop policy up there. Each individual member can take that policy and present it to their legislature and tailor it to their particular state. I’m not aware of any ALEC legislation per se but some members may have taken some ideas” home to present, Todd said.
Ketron also said that Tennesseans were front and center at the ALEC conference. “We’re doing things right in Tennessee and they’re looking at us. From bills to anything we’re doing in Tennessee, they want to follow us.”

NRA: Not much TN spending, but quite influential
Also from David Boucher

The gun-rights advocacy organization boasts roughly 5 million members nationwide, including an estimated 100,000 in Tennessee, said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. They have influential lobbyists at the state Capitol, and a track record of picking off at least one influential member of the Republican party who stepped out of line.

…The NRA’s national political action committee spent more than $31 million during the 2014 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That doesn’t mean they spend a great deal locally in Tennessee. State campaign finance records show the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund PAC spent only a combined $3,950 over the course of 2013 and 2014.

But former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, recently said that “obviously, the NRA has always been the poster child” when it comes to questions about political spending by outside interest groups.

…The chief national lobbyist for the NRA claimed victory when Gov. Bill Haslam recently signed the controversial guns-in-parks bill.

“Law-abiding Tennesseans have a fundamental right to protect themselves, whether in their homes, or in parks. This will remove a patchwork of laws throughout the state that could have turned law-abiding citizens into unintentional criminals,” the NRA’s Chris Cox said in a statement. “On behalf of the NRA’s 5 million members, we want to thank Senator John Stevens, along with Representatives Mike Harrison and Tilman Goins for their leadership in this effort.”