Unchallenged senators transfer state mailer money to Dickerson, Overbey

State senators without re-election opponents this year have transferred thousands of dollars of state government funds used for voter mailings to challenged colleagues — a practice now banned for members of the state House.

The contrast reflects differing positions taken by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell on use of the “constituent communications” funds. A review of records also shows a striking disparity in the amount of money stockpiled in the accounts by senators compared with representatives.

Only two of the 99 members of the House have more than $10,000 in their accounts, and several have used their own money — or checks drawn on their political campaign accounts — to cover the cost of newsletters, constituent questionnaires and the like because they lack money in their taxpayer-provided accounts. Most senators, on the other hand, have far larger balances — topped by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, with $117,157 stashed in his communications fund.

Bills filed in the past legislative session would have prohibited transfers from one legislator to another and put limits on stockpiling. Yet another bill would have banned mailings to voters in a legislator’s district for 90 days before an election instead of the current standard of 30 days.

The bills failed with Ramsey voicing opposition, but Harwell quietly last March acted on her own to ban transfers by members of the House, a fairly widespread practice for decades by both senators and representatives. The two speakers have overall control of how members can use the money allocated to them — $6,832 per year for senators; $2,016 for representatives.

“She firmly believes that postage money belongs to the constituents of that particular district, not the member. The funds are there to communicate with the constituents of that particular district,” said Kara Owen, spokeswoman for Harwell.

Ramsey, on the other hand, said during the session that he prefers to leave things to the speaker’s discretion on a case-by-case basis. His spokesman, Adam Kleinheider, repeated that position in an email response to an inquiry. Both Ramsey and Harwell declined to be interviewed on the matter.

The standout beneficiary of transfers among senators this year — receiving $32,000 before the 30-day mailing blackout began on June 30 — is Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, who faces a challenge from fellow physician Ron McDow in the Aug. 4 primary. The primary winner will also face a Democratic opponent in November.

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, transferred $10,000 to Dickerson, and Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, added $7,500. Sens. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, provided $5,000 each. Other transfers were from Sens. John Stevens, R-Huntington ($3,000); Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville ($2,500); Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City ($500); and Paul Bailey, R-Sparta ($500).

None of the transferring senators faces an election this year.

The only other reported transfer was $5,000 from McNally to Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, who faces challenger Scott Williams in the Aug. 4 primary.

“I did have an excess and they didn’t, so I was trying to even it out a little bit,” said McNally when asked about his transfers to Dickerson and Overbey.

McNally, who still had a balance of $65,245 in his constituent communications account after the transfers, has announced his intention to seek election as Senate speaker next year and so far has no opposition in his bid to replace the retiring Ramsey. McNally, the Legislature’s most senior member and currently chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would — if elected speaker — likely continue Ramsey’s approach of reviewing transfer requests on a case-by-case basis.

Dickerson spent a total of $33,060 from his communications account during the past year, including a mail piece mostly touting passage of a bill to repeal the state’s Hall Tax on investments “thanks to the efforts of Steve Dickerson.” The mailer cost $11,213 and was sent shortly before the June 30 blackout deadline.

Also, on deadline day, Dickerson spent $2,290 from the account to host a “teletown hall” talk with voters on issues. Records show such events — basically a telephone conference call where constituents listen to a lawmakers report on legislative doings, then are given a chance to ask questions — are an increasingly popular form of constituent communication.

Thanks to the transfers, Dickerson still had $30,380 in his account. That money can be used for mailings after the Aug. 4 primary and until 30 days before the November general election, where — if he wins the primary — Dickerson will face a Democratic opponent in perhaps the most competitive Senate district in the state on a partisan basis.

Records show Overbey spent $22,117 from his account in the past year, mostly on newsletters and questionnaires sent to voters in Blount and Sevier counties while the Legislature was still in session. He spent $2,281 on a constituent conference call in May.

Without McNally’s $5,000 transfer, Overbey could have run up a deficit. With it, he still has a $3,085 — the lowest balance for any senator except Crowe but more than most state representatives have in their accounts. Most senators have five-figure balances.

The biggest account balance for a House member is $14,528, held by Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, a veteran lawmaker facing three challengers in this year’s Republican primary. He spent $5,329 on a mailer in May.

Only one other House member — Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, a veteran legislator who is unopposed for re-election — had more than $10,000 in his or her account. Many have less than $1,000.

Rep. Martin Daniel and Sen. Richard Briggs, both Knoxville Republicans, sponsored legislation in the past session to prohibit transfers. Daniel also handled the presentation before committee of a bill filed by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, that would have expanded the pre-election mailer blackout period from 30 days to 90 days. Daniel and Briggs in 2014 defeated incumbents who had been engaged in transfer activity.

Daniel said he has no plans to renew attempts to block transfers, citing Harwell’s action to end the practice in the House.

“Essentially, she did what we were trying to do,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’ve always thought that money belonged to the people of the district and it shouldn’t be sent by a member to another district.”

He added: “As far as the Senate goes, that’s their business. I wouldn’t want to meddle in their business any more than I’d want them meddling in mine.”

Daniel said, however, that he is inclined to try again next year, if re-elected, for expanding the mailer blackout period to 90 days. He faces three opponents in the August GOP primary, including former Rep. Steve Hall.

After losing in the 2014 primary, both Hall and former Sen. Stacey Campfield, defeated by Briggs, transferred funds from their accounts to other legislators before their terms officially expired. By doing so, they blocked Daniel and Briggs from having use of their leftover funds. Under legislative policy — unchanged by either Harwell or Ramsey — when a legislator leaves office, money in their constituent communications accounts goes to the legislator who takes the seat. That policy is partly responsible for the large stockpile of funds accumulated by senators such as Watson, who “inherited” much of the $117,000 he now holds.

Daniel has just $389 in his account, records show. He drew $2,563 from the account toward the cost of a newsletter in March, but said that wasn’t enough to cover the cost and he wrote a $3,000 check himself to cover the rest of the bill.

McCormick wrote checks to the state totaling $5,000 to avoid running a deficit in his account with spending on a newsletter in January. Others did the same in lesser amounts — just $100, for example, in the case of Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville.

The amount allocated to the accounts has not been increased in decades, while the cost of postage and printing has increased. Daniel said an increase would be appropriate.

“In my opinion, there’s not enough now to cover the cost of adequate communication to constituents, to keep them informed,” he said.

Dick Williams, who has for years lobbied on governmental ethics and campaign finance matters as president of Common Cause in Tennessee, does not disagree with the idea of an increase. There is a “valid purpose” in providing some money for constituent communications, he said, and the cost of postage alone has escalated over the years.

At the same time, Williams has pushed legislation to ban transfers and praised Harwell for doing so. Still, he said, formal legislation would be a good idea since the Senate is not covered and a House speaker in the future could quickly reinstate transfers.

The transfers may be “smart political strategy” for legislators wanting to help re-elect colleagues, he said, but “it’s not the alleged purpose of the constituent communication money to be a political slush fund, for lack of a better term.”

Williams also said he favors an extension of the pre-election mailer blackout, though not necessarily to 90 days. That might be too long, he said, while 30 days might be too short and some middle ground — 45 or 60 days — could be more appropriate.