Five legislators hosted on seaside trip by voucher advocate

Five Republican state legislators were hosted on a three-day trip to the Alabama Gulf coast in 2014 by Mike Gill, a board director of Tennessee Federation for Children, a group that actively pushes school voucher legislation and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legislative campaigns through its political action committee, according to The Tennessean.

Reps. Andy Holt, Mike Carter, Billy Spivey and recently ousted lawmaker Jeremy Durham stayed at Gill’s condo and left one morning for a half-day deep sea fishing trip paid for by Gill. They didn’t catch many fish, but the captain showed them how to filet the ones they did. Rep. Jimmy Matlock also made the trip but went to the beach instead of fishing because he gets seasick.

The group traveled to Gill’s Gulf Shores condo and ate seafood at local restaurants on their own dime. They discussed policy, but some say there was a rule not to do so when Gill was around.

Carter, who bunked on a couch in the condo for the three-day trip, thought he might have to take a quiz after watching the movie. He described the weekend as “intense training in integrity” involving “an odd duck.”

(Note: The referenced movie was “A Man for All Seasons,” a 1966 film on the final years of Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England who clashed with King Henry VIII on religious principles and was beheaded. The men watched the movie one night, then discussed it at length.)

The “odd duck” Carter referenced is Gill, a member of the board of directors with the Tennessee Federation for Children, an arm of the American Federation for Children that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on contract lobbyists to push lawmakers to legalize school vouchers in Tennessee.

In 2016, all five lawmakers who went to Gill’s condo co-sponsored legislation to allow vouchers in the state.

Since 2013, four of the five lawmakers have received a combined $19,850 from the Tennessee Federation for Children, according to the group’s campaign finance records. Carter received $1,500 from the organization in 2014, but an amended statement from the group indicates he returned the money a month later. In 2016, the organization paid a consulting firm $6,000 to create a campaign mailer in support of Carter.

Gill, meanwhile, since 2013 has given $45,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children.

…Gill is not a registered lobbyist for any organization, so he says he was able to host the group of lawmakers legally.

…“I am not a lobbyist,” Gill said. “I don’t meet the definition of a lobbyist by the state of Tennessee rules, and I don’t think I meet it from the standpoint that I am trying to push something from which I will benefit.”

Matlock, who is running for House speaker, and Carter, who is considering running for House majority leader, said that Gill was not a lobbyist. They likened the trip to a family friend offering a weekend at a vacation home.

…Lawmakers now say at the time of the trip they didn’t really know Gill, who repeatedly downplayed that he was the host for the weekend. Gill told The Tennessean the trip came together through “osmosis.”

Carter said this week: “I don’t fully understand what Mark does.”

Jim Wrye, a voucher critic and lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said Gill is one of his main opponents.

“Mark Gill does lobby for vouchers. He’s one of the strongest lobbyists for vouchers, and he’s been quite an adversary in those fights. I consider him one of the most tenacious lobbyists on the privatization side,” Wrye said.