Three PACs with education agendas put $1.2M into TN politics

In their final disclosures before Thursday’s elections, three political action committees advocating vouchers and charter school expansion spent more than $1.2 million in Tennessee political campaigns with almost all the money coming from outside the state.

The reports also show the groups are poised to potentially spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more in the final days of campaigning. That spending won’t be disclosed until October.

In several campaigns for seats in the state Legislature, a PAC spent more in the period covered — July 1 through July 25 — than the candidates themselves have spent in their entire campaigns.

For example, Tennessee Federation for Children, reported “independent expenditures” totaling $79,587 in attacking state Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville, during the period and another $6,339 on a mailer supporting his opponent in the Republican primary, real estate agent Cynthia Bundren Jackson. Under relevant laws, such spending cannot be coordinated with a candidate.

For the entire campaign, Hicks has spent $46,123, according to his disclosures dating back to last year, while Jackson has spent $63,266.

Much of the criticism directed by the group against Hicks accuses him of “double dipping” by continuing to draw his salary as technology director for the Hawkins County school system while also drawing a legislator’s salary and does not mention school vouchers — the prime focus of TFC’s advocacy efforts. Hicks opposed voucher legislation that passed the state Senate but failed in the House during this year’s legislative session.

Besides Hicks, TFC also targeted Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, and two Memphis Democrats — Reps. Antonio Parkinson and Johnnie Turner — with attack advertising. Incumbents supported by the group include Republican Reps. Mike Carter of Ooltewah, Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville, Mike Sparks of Smyrna, Tim Wirgau of Buchanan and Democratic Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis. TFC also helped candidates in some open seats and a few incumbent challengers.

The TFC PAC reported receiving $486,000 in donations during the July period — including $270,000 sent from its Washington-based parent organization, American Federation for Children, and $200,000 from James C. “Jim” Walton of Bentonville, Ark., son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

TFC spent $361,000 during the 26-day period and had $186,000 cash on hand for spending in the final days. That, of course, could be supplemented by post-July 25 donations to TFC.

But TFC was outdone in overall political spending during the July period by the Tennessee political arm of Stand for Children, a national group that has focused more on supporting charter schools than on vouchers.

Stand for Children operates two PACs in Tennessee, one devoted to independent expenditures and the other to making direct donations to candidates. Together, they have reported spending almost $830,000 on state political operations — all but $50,000 of the money flowing into the PACs during the period coming directly from the group’s Portland, Ore., headquarters without disclosure of sources of that money. The exceptions were two $25,000 donations each from brothers John and Orrin Ingram, Nashville businessmen and sons of Ingram Industries founders John and Martha Ingram.

The lion’s share of Stand for Children spending is listed in its July 1-25 pre-primary independent expenditure disclosure. It reported $713,968 of incoming money and spent $708,080 of that during the period. Unlike TFC, which focuses almost exclusively on legislative campaigns, Stand for Children also gets involved in local school board races — most notably disclosing more than $200,000 spent in races for Nashville school board seats, attacking incumbents who have opposed charter school expansion and supporting their opponents.

Still, Stand reported about $250,000 in July spending on legislative campaigns with substantial amounts spent in a handful of races. The biggest beneficiary in July was Christy Sigler, a Murfreesboro lawyer who is one of four Republicans competing in the primary for the seat being vacated by Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale. Womick has endorsed one of Sigler’s opponents, Tim Rudd. Stand’s PAC has spent $78,488 on ads supporting Sigler; the candidate herself has spent just $11,739 for her entire campaign.

Stand is sponsoring ads attacking incumbent Republican Reps. Judd Matheny of Tullahoma, Jeremy Durham of Franklin and Rogers while backing their challengers. Attacks on Durham, who has suspended his re-election campaign and faces possible expulsion from the Legislature in a scandal involving his alleged sexual harassment of women, total almost $90,000 if combined with spending in support of his primary challenger, Sam Whitson, and expenditures reported before July 1.

The group’s PACs are in conflict with TFC on at least two races: supporting Hicks and Rogers, who are opposed by TFC. A couple of legislators have suggested — and an anonymous political blog contends — that Stand for Children is allied with Gov. Bill Haslam in opposing some of the state’s most conservative Republicans while pushing more moderate primary candidates.

A gubernatorial spokeswoman said in an email that’s not true and the governor is not involved, noting Stand for Children was initially established before Haslam was elected — the direct donations PAC in 2008, the independent expenditure PAC in 2010.

“He doesn’t know who their donors are and has never raised money for them,” said Jennifer Donnals, the governor’s spokeswoman.

Haslam used his own PAC to send $150,000 in direct donations to 43 incumbent Republican legislators in July, most of them facing no opposition to re-election. One exception was Hicks, who got $5,000 from Haslam.

Stand’s independent expenditure PAC had a July 25 balance of a little more than $18,000, while its separate PAC held about $185,000.

A third major player in Tennessee education legislation and politics based outside the state, Students First, is currently undergoing “restructuring” of its state operations following a merger earlier this year with another group known as 50CAN Action, according to spokesman Ted Boyatt.

Students First closed its Tennessee PAC, which in past years as funneled more than $1 million into Tennessee legislative races, in June. Instead, the merged organization has set up a new state-level PAC under the name Tennesseans For Putting Students First, which reported in its July 1-25 first disclosure receiving $310,000 from the 50CAN Action Fund PAC in Washington, D.C., and spending just $18,000 in direct donations to candidates — leaving $292,000 available for distribution after July 25.

Collectively, the three groups thus spent just over $1.2 million within the state during the July reporting period and had more than $680,000 cash on hand available for spending in the last days of campaigning — which, of course, could be supplemented by transfers of funds from the parent organizations.

The Tennessee Education Association, known as the state’s teachers union and adamantly opposed to vouchers and charter school expansion, reported $120,891 in spending as of July 1 with a balance of $214,866 cash on hand in its PAC. The group’s July 25 report was not available on the Registry of Election website this weekend. TEA’s PAC is funding primarily by dues deductions from teacher members’ paycheck and the group traditionally has not engaged in independent expenditures.

Note: The TEA PAC’s pre-primary disclose is filed, contrary to the above, but it appears offhand to mix contributions to candidates with contributions to the PAC itself. The report lists $108,000 in expenditures July 1-25 — the biggest single item being $58,405 in “GOTV handling and postage” — but separately lists $28,000 in contributions to the PAC. Biggest of these are $5,600 from Todd and $4,000 from Parkinson.