Some state legislators facing re-election challengers have been overspending their taxpayer-funded accounts for communicating with constituents, covering the shortfall either with political money or transfers from colleagues who are either retiring or face no re-election opposition.
Some examples from a review of the 2012 “postage and printing” accounts:
-State Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, who is not seeking re-election transferred $4,720 from his account to state Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, who faces a general election opponent. Another retiring Democrat, Rep. Bill Harmon of Dunlap, chipped in $1,500 to Windle from his account.
-Five Republican lawmakers with no opposition gave $1,000 each to state Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, who faces a challenge in the Aug. 2 primary. Without the transfers, Montgomery would have lacked enough money in his account to cover a May mail piece carrying the headline, “Rep. Richard Montgomery: Making Job Creation Priority #1.”
-At least a dozen lawmakers had to write checks to the state to either cover a deficit in their taxpayer-funded accounts or avoid one. Only one legislator wrote a personal check — Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, for $62.02 — while the others transferred political campaign funds. The biggest campaign fund check to the state as of Friday came from Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, for $2,833. Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, had tentatively reported a shortfall of $8,653, though the paperwork was still being processed Friday.
A group of people opposing a Metro property tax increase said the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce should refuse to accept a $300,000 Metro subsidy after endorsing the tax plan, reports The Tennessean. Talk radio host Ralph Bristol, Nashville Tea Party founder Ben Cunningham, businessman Lee Beaman and Justin Owen of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a conservative think tank, said the chamber should live without the city subsidy “to avoid a perceived conflict of interest.”
“In its statement, the Chamber pointed to the need to raise government employee salaries and fund our schools as justification for the tax increase,” the group said in a news release. “Refusing its $300,000 subsidy will help ensure that every dollar of the proposed tax hike goes to fund those programs the Chamber claims warrant the tax hike in the first place, rather than to boost its own bottom line.”
Bert Mathews, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, dismissed the opponents’ comments in a phone interview.
“The money the chamber receives is for a contract for services rendered,” he said. “We’re providing economic development support to the city. It’s just like any vendor fixing your air conditioner or changing light bulbs. That’s our sense of it.”
Gov. Bill Haslam Wednesday defended his legislative efforts to make secret the names of business owners getting millions of state taxpayer dollars to build or expand in Tennessee.
More from Richard Locker: The bill, set for a Senate floor vote this morning, would expand confidentiality provisions already in state law regarding the proprietary information of companies awarded taxpayer-funded incentives to include the names of owners of privately held companies.
The Senate vote on SB 2207 was delayed Monday after state Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, argued that taxpayers deserve to know who’s getting their tax money and that secrecy could lead to corruption. Meanwhile, the president of the Nashville Tea Party and a co-founder of Tennessee Tax Revolt called the bill an “absurdity.”
“We’re absolutely opposed to it,” said Ben Cunningham of Nashville. “It’s an insult to every taxpayer in the state. It’s crazy to demand secrecy when you’re giving away taxpayer money. It’s going to get to the point where giveaways are done for political contributions or personal favors. It’s happened in other states, and it’s an open invitation to that kind of corruption.”
But Haslam told reporters Wednesday his economic development officials want the bill to protect Tennessee’s competitiveness with other states in the cutthroat business of industrial recruiting, where companies play states against each other to maximize the taxpayer funding they get to build or expand operations.
“I think ECD’s (the Department of Economic and Community Development) feelings are that in a very competitive world out there, we’re competing with other states, that (public disclosure of ownership interests) would put us at a disadvantage,” the governor said.
Haslam and ECD Commissioner Bill Hagerty say they want the bill so they can require businesses seeking state incentives to turn over sensitive information to state officials analyzing whether to award them the state cash grants, tax incentives or credits. They said businesses won’t produce the information if the state must make it public. Note: The News-Sentinel has an editorial today opposing the bill.
If you accept the conclusion of a recent study, Tennessee’s Department of Tourist Development may be seen as a profit-making agency.
According to Longwoods International, $42 million in state and local government tax revenue was produced from state-sponsored advertising that promotes Tennessee as a great place to visit. The department’s budget is $20 million.
Ergo, the department returned more than $2 in tax revenue for every $1 in tax money spent. All that other stuff that Commissioner Susan Whitaker and her staff do, such as operating 14 welcome centers along our interstate highways, is covered by the revenue-generating side of things.
But the Longwoods study, based on 2010 data, specifically addresses just $2.2 million in “direct advertising dollars” — the portion that went to the newspapers, magazines, broadcasting stations and websites that ran the ads. For that portion, the report declares there is a $19 to $1 “return on investment.”
Gov. Bill Haslam and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean are silent on how much state and local taxpayer money will go toward developing a $50 million “water and snow park” in Nashville, reports the Tennessean. The silence contrasts with the fanfare accompanying the announcement of the plans with Dolly Parton last week at a news conference last week.
“It’s outrageous that they don’t feel any more obligation to let us know how much it’s going to cost us,” said (Ben) Cunningham, who recently started the Nashville Tea Party and previously led a successful campaign to limit Metro government’s ability to raise property
“They’re basically saying, ‘Don’t bother us, we’ve got this photo op with Dolly, and we’ve got to look good for the photo op. We don’t have time for questions about being caretakers of taxpayers’ money.’ Apparently something’s been negotiated.”
…Dean and Haslam said Metro and the state would provide incentives to help with the project, which they touted as a major boon to the tourism industry, with projections of 500,000 visitors in the first year and 450 full- and part-time jobs.
Both elected officials said they couldn’t provide any numbers yet, however. Dave Smith, a spokesman for Haslam, said that wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“In economic development projects, it often happens that it is announced before specific incentives have been finalized,” Smith wrote in an email Friday. “The governor participated because he’s excited about the project and its expected impact on Nashville and Tennessee. The state is prepared to offer infrastructure support to the project, likely through TDOT and/or ECD.”
The Nashville Tea Party was launched earlier this month, marking the first Tea Party organization to use Tennessee’s capital city in its title, reports the City Paper. Ben Cunningham, who heads the Nashville-based Tennessee Tax Revolt, is the lead founder of the Nashville Tea Party, which made its entry into the local political scene through social media, adopting Twitter and Facebook pages in recent weeks.
“We’re just in the very formative stages,” Cunningham told The City Paper Tuesday. “So, we don’t have a whole lot we can say about the structure. We’ll have many more details coming out over the next few weeks and months.”
The new group’s website, nashvilleteaparty.com, lists three core values: “limited constitutional government, fiscal responsibility and free markets.”
Cunningham, known best for his 2006 petition drive allowing Nashvillians to vote on future property tax increases, said Nashville Tea Party would announce members of its advisory board at a later time. The plan is to make inroads in Metro government, which has received little attention from Tea Party activists.