Dickerson’s opponents question mailer money

State Sen. Steve Dickerson’s Republican opponent and potential Democratic challenger are both calling for a legislative committee to investigate the Nashville lawmaker over his use of taxpayer-funded constituent mailers and telephone calls, reports The Tennessean.

On Monday, Ron McDow and Erin Coleman, who are challenging Dickerson in the August primary and November general election, respectively, sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey asking him to convene a special hearing of the Senate Finance Investigations and Oversight subcommittee.

The purpose of the hearing, McDow and Coleman say, is to have the subcommittee investigate Dickerson’s use of legislative money to communicate with his constituents via three direct mailers and town hall events conducted over the telephone.

Despite the criticism, Dickerson — who is chairman of the oversight subcommittee — and Ramsey are standing behind the senator’s use of taxpayer money.

Dickerson reportedly spent about $33,000 from his legislative communications account and an additional $2,200 for a tele-town hall, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. (Note: Story posted HERE.)

The money Dickerson spent on the outreach effort was paid by a “constituent communications” or “franking” fund that members of the state Senate and House are provided.

The two legislative chambers have a different approach in terms of transferring funds between fellow lawmakers. In the Senate, members are allowed to transfer their franking funds to colleagues — the practice was banned in the House last year — as long as it is before a 30-day blackout period that began before early voting started.

Lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to further limit the time frame when they could send letters out to their constituents while also running for office.

Before the blackout period, several lawmakers, including Sens. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, transferred $32,000 into Dickerson’s constituent communications account.

The transfer boosted Dickerson’s franking fund to $66,000.

“How could it be legal for a sitting member of the state legislature to spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on six blatantly political communications with voters within 30 days of the beginning of early voting in his primary election?” Coleman and McDow asked in the letter to Ramsey.

“The taxpayers of Senate District 20 couldn’t agree more that oversight is essential to ensure that our money is being spent wisely,” they concluded. “We now firmly believe that increased oversight of the Senate franking program is needed.”

Despite McDow and Coleman’s concerns, Dickerson firmly stood behind his use of the franking fund, arguing that constituent communications are a “hallmark in the republic in which we live.”

“Some elected officials suffer from getting elected and then thinking they’ve got the stamp of approval and they’re going to move forward with their agenda. My belief is very different; that is, the give and take of information with constituents is what informs me as a legislator,” he said.

Dickerson said he used a tele-town hall to have a department of health official explain to his constituents how to protect themselves from the Zika virus.

He said his use of franking funds was “100 percent legal,” adding that his communications received approval before they were distributed, a point that was confirmed by Connie Ridley, the director of Legislative Administration.

“All of Senator Dickerson’s mail pieces and mass communication activities received thorough review and approval by both the Senate chief clerk and the director of the Office of Legislative Administration,” Ridley said. “The program is being utilized in the most efficient manner and meets all requirements of the legislative policy governing the use of postage and printing accounts.”