While one bold plan to enhance to the political power of the Legislature’s partisan caucuses sank into the 2013 session sunset last week amid considerable media clamor and political rhetoric, a subtle plan with the same general goal was quietly positioned for passage.
Sen. Frank Niceley was author of plan No. 1, which would have allowed Republican state legislators to pick the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate while Democratic legislators chose the Democratic nominee.
The Strawberry Plains farmer pitched his proposal as a way to fix a broken Washington, delivering “a little history lesson” about how the Founding Fathers fashioned things so legislatures directly named a state’s U.S. senators until the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted in 1913.
Niceley’s critics focused on the simple fact that the his proposal would eliminate the right of average Republican and Democratic voters to choose their party standard bearers in a primary election. Another criticism was that the old pre-1913 system produced some real episodes of corruption in the legislative deal-cutting process — at least in other states.
Virtually ignored by both sides was the most intriguing aspect of Niceley’s plan: It would substantially reduce the impact of money in the political system.
A bill approved by a House committee on Tuesday will allow political parties and the Legislature’s partisan caucuses to more than double their contributions to state legislator campaigns.
The bill (HB643) by House Republican Caucus Leader Glen Casada would raise the current maximum donation from $40,000 to $150,000 in state Senate campaigns. For House campaigns, the maximum donation would increase from $30,000 to $75,000.
Casada earlier this year had previously planned to push legislation to completely repeal all campaign finance limits this year. But he said his thinking had changed after talking to others – including House Speaker Beth Harwell, who opposed a complete repeal – and the bill presented Tuesday is the replacement plan.
In practical effect, it would substantially increase the clout of the Democratic and Republican caucuses of the General Assembly, along with the state’s two party headquarters in funding legislative races. Current law already allows the caucuses and parties to accept unlimited amounts of cash from corporations, political action committees and individuals. The bill broadens there ability to spend such monies when collected.
The bill contains other provisions as well. One of them repeals an old law that prohibits insurance companies from directly donating to legislators’ political campaigns. Since state law, after a 2011 revision, allows other corporations to donate directly to legislative candidates, Casada said the measure simply puts insurance companies on equal footing with other businesses.
A bill proposed by East Tennessee Republicans calls for U.S. Senate candidates to be nominated by the Legislature’s partisan caucuses rather than in contested primary elections.
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, proposes that the new system take effect on Nov. 30, 2014. That effectively “grandfathers in” incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s re-election under the present system “because he’s doing such a good job,” said Niceley.
The new system would be valid under the U.S. Constitution, which courts have held grants wide latitude to states in deciding how political parties nominate candidates for the U.S. Senate, Niceley said.
He noted that Utah does not have contested primaries, instead having each party pick a nominee at a party caucus meeting.
Until 1913, senators were directly chosen by state legislators. In that year, the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution changed that system to provide for popular election. But the amendment is silent on how candidates are nominated for the election.
“We’ve tried it this way (contested primaries) for 100 years,” said Niceley. “It’s time to try something different.”
Under the bill (SB471), the House and Senate Republican Caucuses would jointly choose the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate at an open meeting while the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses would choose the Democratic nominee.
Such a system would avoid the huge fundraising and spending in primary elections and open the door for more qualified candidates with fewer financial resources to seek the nomination, Niceley said.
In last year’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary, the party was “embarrassed” by the nomination of Mark Clayton, Nicely said, and the new system would avoid such situations. Clayton, who was officially disavowed by the state Democratic Party for what party officials called “extremist views, got about 30 percent of the vote in losing to Republican Sen. Bob Corker.
Niceley said he has discussed the proposal with legislative leaders and believes the idea has considerable support. He said Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, will sponsor the bill in the House.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said he had discussed the proposal with Niceley and thought it “an interesting idea,” though he would defer to former Sen. Roy Herron, recently elected chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. Herron said letting legislators pick Senate nominees would “turn back the clock a century or two.”
“I have great respect for Sen. Niceley, but Democrats believe in democracy and trust the people over the politicians,” Herron said. “I’m thankful to represent the Democratic party, not the dinosaur party.”
State Republican Chairman Chris Devaney, on the other hand, said this in an email after a conversation with Niceley Wednesday:
“You can always can count on Sen. Nicely to come up with innovative proposals conservatives can be proud of. This is another step in that direction and I certainly think it is an interesting idea.”
Jim Jefferies, spokesman for Alexander said the senator hasn’t seen the bill and has no comment at this time, though “I know he will appreciate Mr. Niceley’s compliment” about Alexander doing a “good job.”
“Sen. Corker hasn’t seen the bill and isn’t in the habit of weighing in on state legislation,” said Laura Herzog, spokeswoman for Corker.